With Foresight, Kazakhstan Tweaks Its Constitution

Earlier this week, the government of Nursultan Nazarbayev proposed changes to Kazakhstan’s constitution that would decentralize power away from the president. The changes would grant greater power to the legislature and government ministers. The legislature is to be given more power over the ministers, and the ministers will be granted administrative powers that were previously reserved for the president. While decentralizing his own power may seem a surprising move for a leader who is usually regarded as a dictator, it is widely believed that Nazarbayev is doing so with a future political transition in mind.

The location of Kazakhstan in the center of Eurasia

Kazakhstan is a vast country located on the steppes of Central Asia. It has the largest landmass of any landlocked country, and contained within its great expanses are valuable deposits of natural resources. The most significant of these are oil and natural gas, which have fueled a boom of modernization and development in the post-soviet country. As a result, it has a much higher GDP per capita than its Central Asian neighbors, all of which were also constituent republics of the USSR until 1991. Like many its Central Asian neighbors, however, Kazakhstan’s totalitarian roots have contributed to the rise of a de facto one-party state. Nazarbayev has been Kazakhstan’s president since before its independence, and since then he has ruled the country with an iron grip.

One of Kazakhstan’s aforementioned Central Asian neighbors is Uzbekistan, whose history closely mirrors that of Kazakhstan besides one key difference. It, too, was a Soviet Republic until 1991. It, too, developed an authoritarian dictatorship. In fact, it is considered even more corrupt and repressive than Kazakhstan. The key point at which the modern histories of Kazkahstan and Uzbekistan diverged occurred in September of 2016. It was then that Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, passed away.

Because Karimov had led Uzbekistan since its independence, just as Nazarbayev has led Kazakhstan since its independence, his death gave rise to an unprecedented situation: Uzbekistan’s first political transition as an independent nation. Because Karimov had maintained such stranglehold on political power, there were fears that his death could give rise to a dangerous power vacuum. Analysts voiced concerns that such a power vacuum could lead to political unrest, and, considering the Karimov government’s hard-line opposition to radicalism, some even worried that the Muslim-majority nation could become a haven for Islamist extremists in the event of a sudden decentralization. None of that came to pass, however, and the country experienced a relatively smooth transition of power as the ruling elite rallied behind the Karimov’s Prime Minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

The 76 year old Nazarbayev is less than two years younger than Karimov, so he likely paid close attention to the transition unfolding in his country’s southern neighbor. He knows that, eventually, his country will go through a similar transition, and he is likely keen on preventing a damaging power vacuum. As a result, he has been reshuffling key government positions in what analysts believe is an attempt to assemble an administration whose purpose is to guide the country through its future transition. The recent proposed constitutional changes, too, are viewed as an attempt to facilitate the country’s future transition. By weakening the presidency and strengthening both the legislature and ministries, Nazarbayev can create institutions that prevent a complete vacuum. He can create a state that is capable of functioning without an autocrat.

Throughout history, succession crises have again and again devolved into terrible chaos. Autocrats often act as the primary unifying figures of their countries while elites jockey for greater influence. Once the autocrat is gone, the elites have little incentive to maintain unity as they vie for the top spot. In Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya, this phenomenon engendered violent sectarian strife. In many African countries, it caused a circle of dictatorship that reduced the likelihood of future prosperity. In nearly every case, it gives rise to numerous challenges associated with the corrosion of state control, some of which were discussed in last week’s article about the fall of Yahya Jammeh in the Gambia. Considering the violent history of political transition, it is no longer surprising that Nazarbayev would weaken his own office. Why? Because what he is actually doing is weakening the office of his successor.

The Gambia: The Crisis Has Ended, But the Challenge Has Only Just Begun

The dramatic story of the Gambia’s 2016 presidential election is finally coming to a close. After an ECOWAS military force led by Senegal entered the country on Thursday, Yahya Jammeh finally agreed to step down and go into exile. Now, Adama Barrow, the country’s new president, is ready to usher in a “new era of Gambia.” Barrow has promised to free political prisoners, cultivate an independent judiciary, rescind Jammeh’s decision to leave the ICC, and do away with the repression that characterized Jammeh’s rule. After 22 years of dictatorship, however, Gambian democracy is in many ways a blank slate. As a result, Barrow’s rise does not mark the end of a transition to democracy. Instead, it is only the beginning of the next challenge: building the necessary institutions for sustainable reform.

For anyone who isn’t yet caught up, the Gambia, a small country on the Northwest coast of Africa, has been in crisis since last month, when Yahya Jammeh lost the country’s presidential election after 22 years in power. Considering Jammeh’s repressive rule, the world was shocked when Adama Barrow, a newcomer to politics, triumphed in the election. The world was even more shocked when Jammeh conceded defeat the next day. A week later, however, Jammeh rescinded his concession and refused to cede power. Meanwhile, ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) and the international community threw their support behind Barrow, Barrow was inaugurated in the Gambian embassy in Dakar, and ECOWAS prepared for a military intervention. Now that the intervention has occurred, Jammeh has finally stepped down and gone into exile.

A close-up map of The Gambia
The Gambia’s location in Africa. It’s the tiny sliver of land inside the circle.

The Gambia has now entered a phase that has, throughout recent African history, proven immeasurably crucial in determining future levels of prosperity: the post-strongman political transition. After the African continent was decolonized, its politics came to be defined by a long list of dictatorial strongmen who dominated narrow elites. These strongmen, who often co-opted the corrupt institutions established by their former colonial overlords, ensured that their countries remained steeped in poverty. When they fell, and they always did, the dearth of democratic institutions would facilitate the rise of a new strongman who similarly co-opted corrupt institutions. This pattern was seen when Kabila toppled Mobutu in the DRC, when Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo toppled his uncle in Equatorial Guinea, and in the Gambia itself after Jammeh overthrew Dawda Jawara. Clearly, establishing democracy after dictatorship doesn’t always work out as planned.

In some cases, however, countries have been able to escape the vicious cycle of corrupt strongmen. Many African countries that were once controlled by repressive dictators now have effective democracies. Ghana, for example, was once a one-party state run by Kwame Nkrumah and later a dictatorship under Jerry Rawlings, but Rawlings led a transition to democracy. Last month, the country completed yet another transition of power as one of Africa’s most stable democracies. While the Arab Spring launched Syria, Yemen, and Libya into civil wars, it launched Tunisia into democracy with the overthrow of its longtime strongman. The question, then, is this: will Barrow fulfill his promises to turn the Gambia into a democracy, or will it ultimately circle back towards autocracy?

The Gambia’s current situation poses a risk to democracy mainly because it does not have a stable, democratic foundation. In order for a democracy to succeed, the power of the executive must be limited, the people must be educated and engaged enough to exercise their vote responsibly, and government officials must commit to putting the interests of the people above their own interests. As of now, the government is structured around a strong executive, the people are ill-informed due to restrictions on freedom of information, and, according to the Freedom House, “official corruption remains a serious problem.” As a result, Barrow could easily assume dictatorial power if he wanted. But he has so far shown a commitment to building a democracy, promising to restore freedom of speech and do away with the culture of fear. While doing so will empower the people, it is not enough to guarantee success. Instead, fundamental cultural and institutional changes must be made within the government.

Even if Barrow has no interest in assuming autocratic power, both he and his successors will have the incentive and ability to do so unless there is serious institutional reform. It would not be surprising if a future leader of the Gambia takes advantage of Jammeh’s institutions to re-establish a dictatorship. As a result, Barrow’s primary challenge over the next few years is to build a political culture that makes this impossible, and that is an immense challenge. Today is certainly a triumphant day for the Gambia, but the rise of a democratically elected leader does not mean that long-term democracy is guaranteed. The sun has set on a brutal and oppressive era, but diligence is still needed to ensure that the sun never again rises on such an era.

Crucial Elections to Follow in 2017

The numerous elections that took place in 2016 will likely come to be remembered as some of the most consequential in recent history. Many of last year’s elections will leave a lasting mark on the states of their countries, regions, and the world. Countless observers around the world reacted to the Brexit referendum and the United States presidential election with horror, and many will likewise view the coming of 2017 as a welcome riddance of the dreadful 2016. But like 2016, the year that lies ahead of us will bring more than a few elections that have the potential to continue disrupting the global political order. So which elections should you be paying attention to in 2017? Let’s find out.


In 2016, multiple African leaders attempted to extend their stays in power. Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of the Congo amended his country’s constitution to allow himself to run for a third time. Ultimately, he won the questionably conducted election. Burundi’s president also sought to amend his country’s constitution, as did Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda. In 2017, this trend is set to continue. While Kagame has already amended Rwanda’s constitution, his real test comes in August of this year when he will stand for reelection. If Kagame wins, as he almost certainly will, the defining trend of 2016 will stretch into 2017.

Another African country that is set to go to the polls is Angola. Despite being conducted under a de facto one-party state with weak democratic institutions, this election is nonetheless important because the current president of Angola, José Eduardo dos Santos, has promised to step down after 38 years in power. Not one to cede control easily, however, dos Santos has handpicked a former defense minister named João Lourenço as his successor as party leader. The question, then, is this: will Lourenço do the bidding of his predecessor, or will he forge a new path forward for Angola?


In 2014, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took the streets after their government introduced electoral reforms that would affect the 2017 election of Chief Executive, the Special Administrative Region’s highest office. The reforms effectively required that any candidate for Chief Executive would have to be approved by the central government in Beijing. Hong Kong’s democratic culture has become increasingly incompatible with the mainland’s one-party rule since the former British Crown Colony reunited with the People’s Republic in 1997. This incompatibility flared once again when 5000 marched in a pro-democracy protest on New Year’s Day. As a result, the election this March, whose procedures caused so much controversy in 2014 and are once again beginning to draw ire, is likely to be very tense.


Iran is also preparing to hold polls for its highest elected office, that of the President. While many in the West view Iran as an ultra-conservative theocratic pariah, most don’t realize that it has a large reformist bloc within its government. In fact, the current president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, is a moderate, and the Iran nuclear deal would never have passed if the government had been controlled by more conservative lawmakers. In 2017, however, Iran’s moderates are under threat. First of all, their promise of immediate economic gains following the removal of Western sanctions failed to live up to the hype. Furthermore, one of Iran’s former presidents and arguably the most influential figure behind the Iranian moderates, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, passed away last week. As a result, Rouhani and the moderates have lost a crucial ally, weakening their prospects for the May 2017 elections and increasing the likelihood of an Iran that is once again isolated from the international political scene.


Of all the elections that will be affected by the trends of 2016, none will be more heavily influenced than those in Europe. The very same forces that gave rose to Brexit and Trump are still on the rise across Europe, and they have been empowering far-right nationalist parties who will be seeking electoral gains in 2017. The Netherlands, France, and Germany are all holding crucial elections, and each could have a significant effect on the fate of not only their own countries, but the European Union as a whole.

In the Netherlands, the anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic Party for Freedom is riding on the momentum of the very same backlash against globalization that helped boost Trump and the Leave campaign. In France, Marine Le Pen’s ultra-nationalist Front National is widely expected to advance to the second round of the presidential election. In Germany, Angela Merkel will struggle to remain in power after her openness to refugees proved wildly unpopular with the German people. At a time when far-right parties are actively advocating for the dissolution of the EU, the outcome of these elections will determine the future of the organization. Like the elections of 2016, they will, in many ways, force voters to choose between two conflicting worldviews: one of internationalism and another of nationalism.

Ultimately, as much as we may want to make 2016 disappear forever, the forces that affected elections last year will continue to do so this year. In Africa, a handful of authoritarian leaders will continue attempting to use flawed elections to gain legitimacy. In Asia, rival factions in Hong Kong and Iran will continue to quarrel. In Europe, national elections will be fought between internationalists and nationalists. As consequential as 2016 was, 2017 will likely be the same. For this reason, we must diligently follow each of these elections. They will come with implications for everyone, not just those who are casting the ballots.