Nursultan Nazarbayev: The dominant figure in the country’s post-Soviet politics, the president has remained in power through intimidation and electoral manipulation, and his authority has been solidified through the domination of the National Assembly by his allies in the Nur-Otan party. Although he pays lip service to democracy and the virtues of the free market, his government’s actions have sent a clear signal that his embrace of either will be selective, at best. His refusal to name a successor or establish a process to choose one creates a high risk of dangerous political instability if he were to depart the scene unexpectedly. In that regard, questions about his health (he is rumored to have been treated for prostate cancer in 2011) are cause for concern.
Fatherland’s Ray of Light: A pro-presidential party formed in December 2006 through the merger of Otan, Asar, and the AIST, Nur-Otan dominates what is essentially a rubber-stamp legislature. The party won 81% of the vote and 83 of the 113 seats in the National Assembly at elections held in January 2012.
Karim Masimov: Masimov was named prime minister in January 2007, replacing Daniyal Akhmetov, who had come under heavy criticism from the president over his government’s management of the economy. Expectations that the promotion of a reputed reformer might herald a shift away from an increased state role in the energy sector were quickly dispelled, and Masimov’s actions have made clear that the president, not the prime minister, will continue to direct the course of policy.
Timur Kulibayev: The husband of President Nazarbayev’s second daughter, Dinara, Kulibayev became the presumed front-runner to succeed his father-in-law following the spectacular fall from grace of the Nazarbayeva-Aliyev bloc within the family-based political structure. However, the president has already taken steps to check Kulibayev’s influence, and is expected to promote rivalries within his inner circle with the aim of reducing the risk of a challenge to his authority.
Dariga Nazarbayeva: For a time, it appeared that President Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter was being groomed as her father’s anointed successor. However, the president has progressively undermined the basis of her influence in response to challenges to his authority by Dariga and her (now former) husband, Rakhat Aliyev. Even so, Nazarbayev’s frequent moves to balance the influence of his potential rivals and his penchant for maintaining a close connection between his political and family ties means that Dariga’s rehabilitation cannot be ruled out.
Labor: The labor movement has traditionally been completely under the control of the government but there are signs that this is changing. Employees of a subsidiary of state-owned KazMunaiGas staged a protracted strike in western Kazakhstan in 2011, over the course of which the strikers’ demands shifted from a narrow focus on wages to calls for political reform. The opposition parties failed to exploit the walkout to political advantage, and the strike was broken by a combination of deadly repression and financial compensation. Nevertheless, the strike highlighted the threat that unmet expectations pose to domestic tranquility and underscored the potential for disputes over pocketbook issues to become politicized.
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