Category Archives: Elections

Unpacking Kazakhstan’s Election Data

Dena Sholk conducted research in Kazakhstan during its recent presidential election.  She graduates this month from Georgetown University with an M.A. in Eurasian, Russian and Eastern European Studies.  The following is excerpted from her personal blog,, and is presented here by her kind permission.  She also just published in The Diplomat on Kazakhstan’s internal politics (Click here)

Dena Sholk

While it is no surprise that President Nazarbayev was reelected with an overwhelming majority, the political implications of the elections, and the factors driving them in the first place, are more dynamic than have been presented in most Western media sources.

I am no Nate Silver, but as a political-economist, I do love some data analysis. Let’s look at the numbers. The Central Election Commission (CEC) reported that President Nazarbayev was reelected with 97% of the vote, with 95% voter turnout. Kussainov secured .68% and Syzdykov secured 1.68%.

I tallied up the votes from the oblasts reported by the CEC (available here) and I obtained slightly different numbers. As you see, I obtained a voter turnout of 94.93%. The sum of the reported oblast-level data totaled 9,036,724, whereas the CEC reported 9,090,920 voters.

This was fishy. So I wrote to my contact at the CEC, who is the head of international affairs for the body. He responded that the difference can be explained by votes that were not counted because they indicated multiple candidates on their ballot and/or it was not possible to determine which candidate the voter selected. In total, there were 54,196 ballots that were discarded because they were illegible. This is understandable. After all, let us not forget the saga of the 2000 Presidential election with the vote count in Florida.



(On a side note – my contact has been very transparent and helpful both in Astana and communicating via email. As a foreigner, my interactions with government officials in any former Soviet state can be very hit or miss, so cheers to him for his professionalism.)

I spoke with the CEC after they announced the votes. In total, 93 complaints were registered. Most of these complaints were focused on issues surrounding the candidates, but no complaints were reported on violations of an individual’s right to vote.

Because the OSCE/ODIHR did not report major fraud, and noted that the elections were efficiently administered, I am going to accept the data as it is presented. Given the high turnout, is it possible that there was some sort of manipulation of votes? Sure. But I do not have the evidence to substantiate such a claim. Plus, in some of my more academic work, I deal with a lot of data from this region, and I can assure you, there is no such thing as good data. You work with what you have.


The numbers are quite revealing.

First, Nazarbayev secured the lowest percentage of the vote in Almaty city. With 92.55%, while this is the highest of all three candidates, it is the lowest level of support out of all of the oblasts and administrative districts.

Second, Kusainov proved to be a marginal candidate. I interviewed the leadership team of Kusainov. They indicated that they set up field offices in almost every oblast, except for oblasts they knew they did not have a chance. One of those oblasts was Mangistau. Not surprisingly, Kusainov only secured 707 votes there. Kusainov performed best in Almaty city (1.48%) and in Karaganda oblast (1.07%). Kusainov is from Karaganda oblast so he is a “favorite son.” In Almaty, voters who did not support Nazarbayev likely selected Kusainov as an alternative.

Third, Syzdykov performed remarkably well in Almaty, with 5.97% of the vote. I suspect that he attracted many older voters. He did less well in Astana city, securing 1.12% of the vote. The average age in Astana is 32 and almost everyone works in the government in some capacity, so it is not surprising that support for Syzdykov was low (but higher than in other oblasts and cities), and that Nazarbayev secured a strong 98.54% of the vote. Interestingly, Syzdykov performed the strongest in Mangistau oblast. Mangistau is an oil-producing region that borders the Caspian. According to Mangistau’s Development Strategy 2011-2015, the oblast had the second highest per capita GDP in Kazakhstan of 2542,5 thousand tenge in 2009. This is also 2.3 times higher than the national average for per capita GDP of 1068 thousand tenge. This is however, an inflated number because of the amount of oil produced and the high salaries of international oil workers. Many low ranking oil workers do not obtain attractive salaries and Mangistau has historically been a place of discontent and unrest. There were riots in the Mangistau in 1989 and in 2010. It is therefore not surprising that voters showed great support for Syzdykov.

On a methodological note, voters are registered to vote by their propiska – or registration. Every citizen in Kazakhstan has a propiska that is associated with an oblast. If I am living in Almaty city, and my propiska is in East Kazakhstan Oblast, in order to vote in Almaty, I must obtain the necessary documentation (like an out of state ballot) to cast the vote. In terms of the results of the data, this means that there are voters who are voting in areas outside of the regions where they are registered. Many people who work in Astana, for example, still have their Almaty propiska, simply because they haven not yet gotten around to the paperwork.

Dena Sholk

From the Exeter Central Asian Studies Network: John Heathershaw’s “What does a female presidential candidate in Tajikistan tell us about gender equality?”

(Reposted by agreement with the Exeter Central Asian Studies Network.  The original, posted on Oct. 7, 2013, can be found here.)

What does a female presidential candidate in Tajikistan tell us about gender equality?< Continue reading From the Exeter Central Asian Studies Network: John Heathershaw’s “What does a female presidential candidate in Tajikistan tell us about gender equality?”

Rap, Resistance, and Iran’s 2013 Election

Classical music aficionados are fond of saying that in music, the silences have as much meaning as sound, and in the lead-up to Iran’s presidential election today, the relative silence of Persian rappers compared to their lyrical engagement in 2009 is deafening.[i]  Why has this year’s presidential election failed to excite Iran’s hip-hop community to its previous level of politically-articulate production?  Widespread belief that the 2009 results were fraudulent spawned the Green Movement and an abundance of protest rap, but even prior to this escalation, well-known rappers were commenting on election issues in their lyrics and had recorded songs in support of reformist candidates Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karrubi.  Westerners took note of rap’s resonance with Iran’s youth, the largest segment of Iran’s population, and began to analyze its contents for insight into the country’s future.  On the eve of Iran’s presidential election, a closer look at Persian rap as social and political activism offers insight into the meaning of its current comparative silence.

Why rap?  Iranian Studies specialist Clayton Keir asserts that the poetic nature of rap music translates well to Iranian culture due to the prominence of poetry in Persian society.  Persian poetry classics from Khayyam, Ferdowsi, Saadi, and Rumi remain an important part of Iranian culture, pride, and education.  Many Persian rappers consider themselves to be continuing this same poetic tradition and explicitly reference these works in their lyrics or adapt them to rap songs.   As Yas, the “Persian Tupac,” put forth, “Hip-hop began in America, but Iran has had one of the longest traditions of poetry of any in the world.  Poetry is in our blood.”

Keir also attributes the appeal of rap among young Persian music artists to the mark that African-Americans have left on it. Iranian rappers view rap as the music of an economically disenfranchised group and an outlet for grievances. The music form traditionally has an angry, protest-friendly tone. Moreover, the lyrically-based music genre allows for the greater development of criticisms and encourages the listener to focus on content.  “With this music style I can tell a whole story which is impossible to do in other music styles.  I have a lot to say,” explains Yas.

The rap form itself is a protest statement, a challenge to the government’s efforts to curtail Western influences in Iran.  Although not explicitly forbidden, most rap in Iran occurs illegally since artists must receive a mojavvez, or permission, from the government in order to sell their music or perform.  Most submissions from rappers are rejected on the grounds of exhibiting “unsuitable” words, grammatical errors, “unsuitable” personal grooming, “superfluous” stage movements, etc.  By virtue of existing outside the confines of government control, however, rap gains a kind of social legitimacy.

Thanks to social media and new media sharing technologies, Persian rap flourishes on the Internet.  The Iranian government actively blocks or filters popular social media websites, such as YouTube and Facebook, but users circumvent censorship with the help of filter-breaking technologies, in large part provided by the United States.  Additionally, Persian music websites such as (Come in), (Come to rap),, and (Underground) allow users to read about new music and download songs.  These sites thus facilitate the development of a virtual opposition community which calls for change and influences political activism.

While Persian rappers outside of Iran often directly criticize the government without fear, rappers inside Iran tend to cloak their criticisms, describing problems that have resulted from the failings of the government and allowing the listener to fill in the gaps.  Common themes include economic problems/poverty, social injustices, and women’s issues.  In 2009, however, even inside of Iran, rappers began to comment on specific political issues and situations.  As Keir states, they persuaded people to engage in oppositional behavior, promoted solidarity among those opposing the government, pointed to existing problems, and offered solutions.

Rap in Iran still offers cloaked messages and a flippantly alternative form, but its exuberance of political engagement in 2009 has largely been absent during this most recent election.  Why?  What is different this time? Rappers’ most popular grievances about economic failures and social inequalities certainly have not been solved, and perhaps have become more urgent.

Is it because none of the “cautious” reformist candidates have truly inspired the youth opposition to the level that Moussavi did in 2009?  Excitement on par with that felt in 2009 began to coalesce around former president Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, but he ultimately was disqualified by the Guardian Council.  Has the government succeeded in trying to keep energy levels low in order to prevent the polarization of the election and a repeat of what happened in 2009?  Is it because voters have become disillusioned by the election process due to widespread belief that the 2009 election was rigged?  Various polls suggest that voter turnout is still likely to exceed 60%, but this may have more to do with creating the illusion of legitimacy for whomever is elected.  Although the regime has actively sought to curtail enthusiasm by disqualifying popular reformists from candidacy—ending university terms early, minimizing confrontations between candidates during debates, etc.—at the same time it has shown concern for ensuring a high voter turnout, scheduling local elections for the same day and reminding voters of their civic duty in television announcements.

Is politically-pointed rap largely absent this time because, in the wake of unremitting suppression of freedom of expression since 2009, rappers are afraid to engage in criticisms that are too overt?  Many reform newspapers have been shut down, access to the internet and foreign broadcasts restricted, and journalists detained.  Likewise, several popular rap artists have fled Iran since 2009.

Keir suggests that the answer might lie in the confluence of all of these things, and notes that despite current conditions, even in its cloaked form, rap in Iran is playing an integral role in the development of an alternative ideology and a culture of resistance. What would have to happen to cause an eruption of political activism now in rap, this most perfectly-suited medium of protest? Maybe we’ll find out today.


[i] I refer here to rappers who are still in Iran, not Persian-language rappers outside of the country, some of whom left after the events of 2009.

Rap, Resistance, and Iran’s 2013 Election

Classical music aficionados are fond of saying that in music, the silences have as much meaning as sound. And in the lead-up to Iran’s presidential election today, the relative silence of Persian rappers compared to their lyrical engagement in 2009 is deafening.[i]  Why has this year’s presidential election failed to excite Iran’s hip-hop community to its previous level of politically-articulate production?  Continue reading Rap, Resistance, and Iran’s 2013 Election