President Nursultan Nazarbayev is expecting to face three weak challengers in a snap election on April 3, a contest that he is certain to win. The biggest question surrounding the upcoming election is how many citizens will show up to vote.


A campaign to boycott the vote, backed by a group of well-known public figures, is gathering steam. On March 4, the Let's Defend the Constitution committee, set up in late February, issued a public appeal urging voters to stay away from the polls.


"A boycott of the 2011 presidential elections is our protest against the extension of President Nazarbayev's powers, against the trampling of the Constitution and the discrediting of elections as a democratic institution," said the statement, carried on the websites of political parties supporting the boycott, and on a specially-created Facebook page.


Signatories of the appeal include politicians Vladimir Kozlov, the leader of the unregistered Alga! DVK (Forward! DVK) party and Gaziz Aldamzharov, head of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. The names of prominent journalists are also found on the statement, including Sergey Duvanov, Igor Vinyavskiy, and Andrey Sviridov. In addition, activists from the Ult Tagdyry (Fate of the Nation) nationalist movement and the Ar.Rukh.Khak (Dignity.Spirit.Truth) human rights foundation and other movements are backing the initiative.


The campaign builds on a series of videos calling for a boycott that Alga! DVK has been distributing on the video sharing website YouTube since mid-February. More broadly, the boycott campaign is relying heavily on social networking websites to spread its message, featuring a logo based on a stop sign, showing a red border and a red figure draped in the Kazakh flag holding a placard reading "boycott."


Boycott supporters say the snap election, which pushed the presidential vote up almost two years ahead of schedule, is not only anti-constitutional but also unfair, since opposition candidates don't have time to mount credible campaigns. That argument has been publicly rejected by presidential adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, who says the opposition is weak because it is disunited.


Nazarbayev has described the early election as a compromise on his part to uphold the constitution while at the same time satisfying public demand for his rule to continue. A petition drive seeking an extension of Nazarbayev's term to 2020 was launched in December and quickly garnered 5 million signatures. Nazarbayev vetoed legislation in January authorizing a referendum, but parliament overrode that veto.


Presidential aides are portraying Nazarbayev as a stickler for due process. "He treats the legal side of one complex political question or another very scrupulously. ... For him it has always been important to execute any changes in the appropriate manner and exclusively on the constitutional level," Yertysbayev told the Ekspress K tabloid in an interview published on March 4.


The boycott organizers reject the argument that the election is constitutional, asserting that the country's basic law has been gerrymandered to conform to the president's political wishes. Before it was hurriedly rewritten to enable a snap election, the Constitution clearly specified that the presidential elections should have been held in December 2012.


"Sensible citizens of the country have no doubt that the 'early elections' declared by Nazarbayev are, in these conditions, merely a mechanism to extend his power," the boycott appeal stated.


Nazarbayev faces three challengers – Party of Patriots leader Gani Kasymov, who is a Nazarbayev's appointee to the Senate; Zhambyl Akhmetbekov, the leader of the Communist People's Party of Kazakhstan; and Mels Yeleusizov, head of the Tabigat (Nature) environmental movement, who is seeking to use the campaign to promote green issues. Boycott organizers are describing the campaign as "a shameful 'one-actor show.'" Political experts, meanwhile, expect Nazarbayev, who is genuinely popular among Kazakhstani voters, to be reelected in a landslide.


Major parties, including OSDP Azat, Ak Zhol, Alga! DVK and the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, are declining to field candidates for the election. But – highlighting the divisions within the opposition – they all have not joined the boycott movement.


OSDP Azat, while refusing to field a candidate, has applied for representation on electoral commissions, and is not urging supporters to stay away from the polls. "It is the right of each citizen" to decide whether or not to vote, Marzhan Aspandiyarova, a member of the OSDP Azat presidium, told EurasiaNet.org.


Ak Zhol leader Alikhan Baymenov said he lacked time to prepare a credible campaign, but his party is not backing a boycott either. "Any elections are a certain school, a certain experience," he told EurasiaNet.org. He hopes this learning experience will help Kazakhstan – which has never held an election deemed free and fair by international observers – improve its electoral performance. He is also pushing for Astana to liberalize the political system.


The lack of a strong opposition candidate, coupled with complacency among Nazarbayev supporters, has raised the possibility that turnout could be low. To combat that possibility, a rival campaign has emerged on the other side of the fence. Kazakhstani celebrities, including singers Nurzhan Kermenbayev, Medeu Arynbayev, Asha Matay and Murat Kozha, along with producer Bayan Yesentayeva and TV presenter Marzhan Sultanova, are participating in the Vote for Kazakhstan campaign. On March 3, the Arnau group posted a song and video on YouTube urging the public to cast ballots. "Don't stand aside, the fate of the country's for you to decide," goes the chorus in the song, which is sung partly in Kazakh and partly in Russian.


Celebrities participated in a news conference in Almaty on March 9 to publicize the campaign, which is targeting young voters. They should get out and vote because "our country's future needs it," Kozha said.


The get-out-the-vote campaign's organizers insist it is their own idea and they are not trying to promote any particular candidate. Nevertheless, some of the celebrities involved in the initiative are making no secret of their political loyalties. "Nursultan Nazarbayev is our candidate," Matay said.


Editor's note: Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.

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