Wednesday, March 16, 2011

the point of a boycott

i usually think that election boycotts are counter-productive. the boycotting side stays away from the polls and just ends up being less represented in the government that follows. instead of sending a message, election boycotts often end up squelching what little voice the boycotters may have had before.

but kazakhstan may have blundered into a situation where a boycott could actually be effective. as i mentioned before, next month's national elections are being held almost two years ahead of schedule in response to a "spontaneous" movement to extend the term of president nazarbayev until 2020. in december, a of concerned citizens claimed to produce a petition calling for the president to be immune from elections for the next ten years. the petition was signed by 5 million members of the kazakhstani electorate, a stunning number in a country with only 10 million eligible voters. the government then somehow managed to verify the signatures in record time and then destroyed all the signatures. for a few weeks, it looked like the proposal would pass, or at least be voted on in a national referendum, which either way would court negative attention in the western press.

then the constitutional council ruled that the proposal was unconstitutional. it could have ended there, but instead president nazarbayev swooped in proposing a grand compromise: move the next presidential election forward to april 2011 rather than december 2012. it's never been clear to me how that was a compromise exactly, but (he claimed) the people were clamoring for more naz, so what other choice did he have? thus the current presidential election campaign.

but remember, this whole circus started because supposedly 5 million citizens were spontaneously moved to demand that nazarbayev remain president. if less than five million people show up to vote, then it will implicitly discredit the entire story. when you control every lever of government, it's easy to stuff a ballot box or manipulate election returns. it's harder to fake a turnout.

and so there are effectively two election campaigns going on right now in kazakhstan: the ersatz presidential election campaign playing out on the state-run media, and the guerrilla campaign waged by protesters calling for an election boycott. i doubt if the boycott movement will work, outside of astana and almaty there doesn't seem to be much opposition to nazarbayev in the country. but at least this time i can see the point of a boycott.