Our stunted democracy could learn from Kazakhstan: Another Bush/Clinton race doesn't look free to the rest of the world

We act superior to countries where leaders are reelected with 97 percent. But to them we don't look much different

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published April 27, 2015 10:58PM (EDT)

Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat on the David Letterman Show
Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat on the David Letterman Show

Nursultan Nazarbayev won reelection in Kazakhstan on Sunday with a crazy 97 percent of the vote.

Elections where strongmen win with such a big plurality aren't particularly democratic ones. The Western media has been using the elections as an opportunity to point out all of the flaws in the Kazakh system.  But maybe the Western media coverage is about as culturally arrogant about the Central Asian nation as the film "Borat" was.  What if there are elements -- not every element, mind you, but some -- to Kazakh elections that are far superior to U.S. practices, and that we might be able to take a lesson from?

Let’s start with the democratic flaws that the media has right. There is the fact that the likely winner of the elections, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been president since the fall of the Soviet Union. Then there is the fact that he has worked to change the constitution granting him the chance to serve as president with no term limits—those only apply to other future presidents.   Then there is the fact that almost all media is focused on him as the father of the nation, making it extremely hard for any other candidate to have a chance to gain major public support.

So by most accounts it doesn’t look much like a democracy. According to the Guardian, “Nazarbaev has clamped down on dissent in Kazakhstan, and the country has never held an election judged to be free or fair by the West.”

But here is the strange part, undemocratic as the process may seem to be, there are certain things the Kazakhs are getting right --things that we in the United States get wrong.

Now if your only knowledge of Kazakhstan comes from "Borat" this is going to be a big surprise to you, but Kazakhstan is the largest economy and the most modern nation in Central Asia.  Its GDP ranks them 53rd overall and they only have 5.3 percent of the population below the poverty line.  In the United States 14.5 percent of the population and 19.9 percent of children lived in poverty in 2013. So, while you might have images of toothless villagers who have sex with their siblings in your head, you need to wipe those images away if you want to truly understand the realities of the country.

As I write from Almaty, Kazakhstan, the largest city in the country and the former capital, I find that locals think that our system also seems to revolve around the same cast of characters as well.  Sure, we are not reelecting the same guy for over 25 years. But it is not inconceivable that we could see a Bush-Clinton match-up -- again.  We have had either a Bush or a Clinton on the presidential ballot in every year since 1980, with the exception of the Obama years. To the Kazakhs that is not exactly an open field for our U.S. candidates.  If Jeb Bush were to win, he could potentially catapult the family into holding the presidency for 20 years. If Hillary Clinton wins, it could be 16 years of Clinton control.   Point is, if you ask the Kazakhs how they feel about the likelihood of reelecting the same guy, they basically ask the same question back to me.

If you ask them about human rights records in Kazakhstan, they will ask about Ferguson.  One Almaty resident I spoke with, who works in marketing for a major Western firm and preferred not to be named, asked if it was really true that our police treat African-Americans differently than white U.S. citizens.  Point taken.

All candidates for president in Kazakhstan must pass a test in fluency in the Kazakh language. Since the country is multilingual and many of the elite were trained primarily in Russian, the test is to ensure that candidates can speak the national language.  “Potential candidates must pass a three-part test that includes writing an essay, reading a text in Kazakh aloud, and delivering a 15-minute speech.” One might wonder what would happen to the U.S. pool of candidates if we also asked them to pass a similar test of English fluency. I suspect that at least a few of our recent candidates would not have passed muster.

And this leads to four of the prime ways that Kazakhs get democracy better than we do.  First of all, they campaign for only 30 days.  This means that elected officials actually do their jobs longer and don’t spend up to 18 months campaigning when they should be working.  And it also means that their country is not embroiled in campaign drama more than a quarter of the time. If you think such a short time frame for a campaign couldn’t work in a fully developed democracy, then check Canadian campaign policy: their campaigns tend to run less than 50 days.

This leads to the second way that Kazakhs do democracy better than we do: they don’t just limit the time frame for campaigns, they also limit money spent on campaigns and they guarantee all candidates state funds, making it possible for candidates without major backers to run a race.  In Kazakhstan the total campaign expense for a candidate cannot exceed $2.3 million.  Meanwhile the United States spent $2.62 billion on the 2012 presidential elections.  Now, you may say that our elections will cost more because the United States has a greater population and our elections are more complex.  But per person spending in theUnited States is about $18 and in the UK it is 80 cents, so that logic doesn’t hold.

The reason why spending in the United States is so out of control is because, well, it is out of control.   As we learned from Stephen Colbert’s effort to get on the primary ballot in South Carolina and his founding of a super PAC, our elections are all about money.  In the 2016 election the Koch brothers are expected to spend $889 million. By no means does that sort of campaign influence suggest a free and fair democratic election. Sort of makes the Kazakhs seem egalitarian in comparison, doesn’t it?

The third Kazakh improvement is with media coverage.  Much has been made of Kazakh media censorship, but when I researched this article and asked someone in the U.S. to send a screen capture of the same search, we got identical top results on Google. One Economist article unfavorable to President Nazarbaev appeared blocked, but I eventually was able to gain access to it from within the country.

In the U.S., the press may be free, but it is certainly controlled as well.  There is significant research that shows the bias of Fox News and its influence on voting. It’s worse than that, though.  Fox News doesn’t just influence elections; it constantly lies to viewers so that they are voting based on false information.

But the real Kazakh media advantage comes from what they call the “day of silence.”  Starting the day before elections and continuing on voting day, candidates and election media must stop all activity so that voters have time to reflect before voting. The goal is to “allow voters to make their choice without pressure.” Imagine that!

This brings me to my fourth example of how Kazakh democracy is an improvement over ours. They hold elections on the weekend so that those who work have a better chance to vote. As we know from Sen. Bernie Sanders’ efforts to make the U,S, Election Day a holiday, our system of holding elections on a working weekday is deeply flawed. Put simply, our current practice disproportionately affects lower-income families, students and working mothers; it reduces turnout; and it comes close to voter suppression.   U.S. voter turnout was only 54.9 percent in 2012 in a tight election. Kazakhs voting in what many called a “snap” election for president reached 95 percent.

If you want one final lesson in what is messed up in our system, try to explain the Electoral College to a Kazakh.  Agina Toiganbayeva, a professor of regional studies at Ablai Kahn University in Almaty, asked me to explain the way that our votes are counted for presidents. When I told her how the Electoral College worked -- and how a handful of swing states were the only ones that really mattered or where the outcome was in dispute -- she asked, “Why would you vote in a state where you knew that your vote might not count?” And yet Catherine Putz of “The Diplomat” wrote an article titled “Why is Kazakhstan even having an election?” Seems the question cuts both ways.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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Borat Democracy Elections Kazakhstan