The need for political reforms first emerged in the second half of the 1990s. The events of autumn 2001 showed that the need to further democratise the political system was increasing and was acquiring a more shaped and systematic nature. In other words, it was clearly seen that the pace of political reforms was far behind that of economic reforms. The country and the government faced the problem of finding a formula for stability, which, in turn, demanded the creation of a mechanism for the coordination of the interests of major socio-political and social groups. Kazakhstan had to make a choice.
The first scenario meant the preservation of the political situation as it was, i.e. freezing the process of political modernisation, and using government structures to ensure stability. The second scenario required that Kazakhstan undergo a stage of political liberalisation and gradually switch to the classic model of democracy with a balance between branches of power, a functioning civil society, citizens’ involvement in political decision-making and other attributes. For the country’s sustainable development, the authorities, to their credit, opted for the second scenario.
It was for this reason that various platforms for dialogue were created in the country: first, the permanent conference on drafting proposals on further democratisation and the development of civil society, and later the national commission for democratisation and the development of civil society.
A presidential decree, issued on 20 March 2006, set up a state commission to draft and specify a programme of democratic reforms. The state commission faced a complex task: to draft a strategy for political reforms that would make liberal democratic transformations in the country systematic and irreversible and find a compromise on the vision of the country’s future development.
In addition, it was necessary to identify the main problems that hindered political modernisation and find solutions to these. The commission completed its work on 19 March 2007. New constitutional amendments, based on the results of this commission’s work and recommended by the head of state, passed by parliament in spring 2007 opened wide opportunities to boost the entire political process in Kazakhstan. New ideas touched various aspects of political life.
On the one hand, this was in practical terms a fundamental reformation of the existing political model, resulting in significant expansion of the powers of the legislative branch, a new configuration of the party sphere, the development of real civil society and the non-governmental sector, all of which would ensure the direct involvement of wide-ranging groups of the population in political processes.
On the other hand, these changes laid the foundation for better coordinated operation of the government system because all central bodies of power will now be mutually dependent and mutually supplemented. In addition, the most vivid characteristic of the new political system will be the strengthening of the mechanism of checks and balances in relations between the branches of power.
By involving parliament in the processes of choosing, agreeing and finally endorsing a candidate for prime minister, the president significantly strengthened powers of lawmakers and gave them the right to get involved in the formation of the executive branch. As a result, the whole cycle of endorsing a candidate for prime minister will be at an equal distance from the main centres of power mechanisms because the right of the final vote will be exercised by the political parties represented in the Mazhilis. This means that the responsibility for appointing a prime minister will be equally distributed between the president and the legislative branch.
In turn, the members of parliament represent various regional interests, the interests of different strata of Kazakh society and the main political and ideological forces of society. Generally, the wide spectre of political forces, as the architects of the constitutional reform intended, which will be presented in parliament, is an important condition for the national dialogue that is needed for Kazakhstan’s sustainable development.
The new functions and powers of parliament include both chambers’ right to take part in the formation of the Constitutional Council, the Audit Committee and the Central Election Commission. These functions will enable Kazakh society to get involved in the election process and the process of adopting the country’s budget, define development priorities and will serve as an impetus to expand access to information, discussion and public argumentation of its vision on the development of the political, economic and social spheres of the country’s life.
Prior to these amendments the development of political institutions in Kazakhstan was largely according to a trajectory set by the executive branch, but now with parliamentary involved in appointing the Constitutional Council, the Audit Committee and the Central Election Commission, politically and socially active groups of the population involved in political parties will have a direct impact on the functioning of power.
The lawmakers, party factions and parliamentary groups will become the main players of the election process as the new powers of political parties (which, in line with the new amendments, will be elected to the lower chamber of parliament by a proportional system, i.e. on party tickets, and the number of MPs was increased by 30 people, including nine to be appointed by the Assembly of Kazakhstan’s People) significantly increase the public’s access to representation in branches of power in our country.
Another breakthrough aspect in the development of constitutionalism was the abolition of the ban on public funding of political parties, NGOs and public associations.
What is the point of this step? The constitutional provision for funding the entire range of political forces will legalise their activities, increase the efficiency of dialogue and cooperation with the government, ensure wider social representation in parliament and strengthen relations between government bodies and society on the most crucial issues of everyday life. Moreover, public funding will boost the population’s civil activity and improve civic-consciousness.
Particular attention should be placed on the state’s funding of political parties on the legislative basis. Public funding seems to have become the necessity of the time. On the one hand, this significantly narrows the field for hidden lobbying of interests of various groups within the country and practically abolishes the practice of funding from aid, because in the legal field political players, as a rule, will aim to act within the country’s legislation.
On the other hand, there will be no grounds to accuse the state of directly supporting certain parties in during election campaigns because the state will offer support to all legally existing and promote their platforms when they achieve recognition by the electorate. The Mazhilis’s increased control over the work of the government following the constitutional amendments will prompt the government to raise the quality of its current and future work and make the principle of competitiveness an obligatory condition for the executive branch. The Mazhilis will be capable of raising a vote of no confidence in any member of government according to the principle of a simple majority, which will significantly increase the degree of responsibility of the executive branch.
Moreover, the government will not be able to rely only on its administrative powers because of a new provision which enables parliament to judge the government’s work based on the report on the fulfilment of the central budget. The failure to endorse the report will also mean a vote of no confidence in the government. In other words, the government’s activities will largely be coordinated with parliament, making them not just transparent but also grounded. This is precisely what is described as the mechanism of checks and balances in action.
Along with powers, the responsibility of the MPs also grows. The provision of the absence of the imperative mandate of deputies was excluded from the constitution which should strengthen intra-party discipline and order and help parties develop as participants of the political processes and boost party factions and groups of deputies. At the same time, the experience in some developed countries shows that party factions are the main centres of intra-party discussions and debates, increasing the efficiency of the work of parties.
These changes could also be described as progressive because they have laid a new system of relations between MPs and their voters through the party political system. This means that a party member who becomes a deputy cannot discredit the work of their party in parliament or contradict it or themselves and cannot manipulate the will of voters who elect them as representatives and defenders of their interests.
Cutting the presidential term from seven to five years after 2012 and limiting the number of consecutive terms to two is the most important part of the constitutional amendments. Even though some researchers found that this amendment violated the rights of Kazakh voters and negated the very principle of democracy when the election of the head of state is dependent on time limits set by the terms of office, generally this state of affairs is the most preferable and acceptable in the present reality in Kazakhstan.
Increasing the number of senators appointed by the president by eight (taking into account the necessity to present ethnic and cultural and other important interests of society in the Senate) will improve the positive perception of parliament’s upper chamber by society because in Kazakhstan the image of a politician depends on their recognisability, reputation and socio-political activity in the perception of the conservative majority.
Powers assigned to the Senate, such as its consent to the appointment of prosecutor-general, chairman of the National Security Committee, chairman of the National Bank and its powers to adopt laws when the Mazhilis is dissolved, are a very strong argument in favour of boosting the activities of the upper chamber. The Senate is in essence turning into a balancing component in the activities of the Mazhilis within the legislative branch in usual conditions and the main centre of power in force-majeure circumstances and situations, i.e. the backbone factor of stability and sustainability of the presidential-parliamentary form of government.