Former Congressman Robert Wexler has found the cure to what ails American democracy, and he’s discovered it in the most unusual of places: Kazakhstan.
The Central Asian dictatorship might seem like a weird choice for rhapsodic odes to the virtues of free elections. The country’s leader, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, has ruled with an iron fist since 1989, when he became the First Secretary of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. Freedom House, the global rights watchdog, ranks the country “Not Free,” as it has every year since 1995. According to the State Department’s annual human rights report, “The president controls the legislature and the judiciary as well as regional and local governments.”
In other words, Nazarbayev wields absolute power. That power has worked wonders for his family, whose total assets have been estimated at $7 billion.
Wexler recently returned from Kazakhstan, where he served as a self-described “independent” monitor observing the country’s presidential election last month. Wexler told me that the costs of his trip were split between the think tank he runs—the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Peace—and the Kazakh government (a morsel that might complicate his “independence”). Wexler’s old congressional district used to encompass parts of Palm Beach County, “the center of our debacle here in the United States” during the disputed 2000 presidential election. Ever since then, Wexler told me, he has had a particular interest in seeking out ways to protect the integrity of the voting process.
And so Wexler ventured to Kazakhstan, a country that has not had a free and fair election since, well, ever. To no one’s surprise, Nazarbayev won with 97.7 percent of the vote, earning a fifth five-year term in office. The election was supposed to take place in 2016, but the parliament—composed almost entirely of members of Nazarbayev’s party—insisted that it be moved up a year early. Nazarbayev, in what must have been an incredibly difficult decision for a man who believes so passionately in notions like separation of powers and the rule of law, humbly assented to his people’s wishes.
“Clearly, an incumbent president that gets 97.5 percent of the vote, most Americans—myself included—would shrug and say that’s not a contest,” Wexler told me. “And that’s kind of the way I went into it. But what’s clear is that Kazakhstan is in a special place in terms of its development as a country.”
Wexler said that “election day—in terms of the mechanics of the vote, in terms of its fairness—was nothing short of impressive, in terms of turnout itself, civic responsibility.”
In truth, everything about this election was a sham. The two token opposition candidates, one of whom is a member of Nazarbayev’s own party, praised Nazarbayev during the campaign. As is the case in many dictatorships, the line between the state and the ruling political party is next to nonexistent, and government resources were heavily devoted to Nazarbayev’s campaign. “The elections in Kazakhstan were never free and even remotely fair,” Alexey Tikhonov, a former correspondent for a newspaper the regime shut down, tells The Daily Beast. “But at least there was a bunch of clowns who pretended to be ‘real candidates.’ This time it was strictly procedural exercise.”
It’s entirely conceivable that Wexler would not have personally witnessed any irregularities or vote rigging. That’s because the “mechanics” of “elections” in dictatorships often have a veneer of legitimacy—voting booths with curtains, sealed ballot boxes, etc.—that disguise the structural flaws inherent in any system that harasses and shuts down independent media and jails political opponents.
I, too, have monitored an election in a dictatorship (Belarus), and only an idiot completely unaware of the society around him, or a bought man on the payroll of the regime, could come away from such a process claiming anything other than that it was a farce.
The true and shady nature of the Kazakh dictatorship might not be immediately clear to an ex-congressman flying in and out of the country for a week, but Wexler need only have familiarized himself with the election observation report compiled by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to understand the charade he was blessing. “Election day generally proceeded in an orderly manner, but serious procedural deficiencies and irregularities were noted throughout the voting, counting and tabulation processes,” it reads.
Wexler’s impression of Kazakhstan’s “authentic vote” might have been altered by discussions with opposition leaders, but he told me he didn’t bother to interview any (which, to be fair to Wexler, would have been difficult, seeing that so many of them are in exile, jail, or underground). Nonetheless, this didn’t stop Wexler from pronouncing on the fundamental soundness of the Kazakh system. “Americans, myself included, tend to judge events that we see based on American standards,” Wexler said.
“Every system is imperfect,” he added.
Indeed, according to the Gentleman from Florida, the Kazakh system is one from which we in the United States could learn a few lessons. “I was at a dozen different polls throughout the day and the preparedness of the poll workers matched in every way, and in some cases exceeded, what we have in the United States,” Wexler gushed to me, sounding like one of those 1930s-era American communists reporting on the magnificent achievements of Josef Stalin’s latest Five Year Plan.
Wexler waxed enthusiastic about the “quaint” Kazakh practice of dispensing chocolates to first-time voters, which, while not necessarily something he would endorse for American elections (maybe because it’s illegal), here he praised it as “wonderful.”
There are other ways in which Kazakhstan encourages voting. “They also use some gentle methods that we ought to think about in our country, quite frankly,” Wexler told me. For elderly and disabled citizens who cannot make it to the polls, the government dispatches election workers and police officers to their homes. This procedure, he gushed, was “unbelievable.” (In a dictatorship, a police officer knocking on your door is usually not a good sign).
The Kazakh regime also has less “gentle” ways of getting people to vote. The OSCE cited “credible instances of administrative resources being used by local authorities and university administration to pressure [the] electorate to turn out in high numbers,” and “credible reports of pressure being put on voters to attend rallies and vote in high numbers for the incumbent.” Perhaps this is why the country’s Central Election Commission reported an absurdly high 95.11 percent turnout. Dictatorships are good at these sorts of things.
At one point in my interview, I gave Wexler an opportunity to criticize the Kazakh government, to prove that he wasn’t a complete shill for a Central Asian kleptocracy. Did he talk to any independent journalists? It’s not an easy thing to do in a closed society like Kazakhstan’s, but surely a former congressman, visiting at the invitation of the foreign ministry, would have been able to arrange such a meeting if he insisted. Wexler told me that he “had heard a number of stories and controversies about lack of freedom of the press,” and did speak to many journalists (whether any of them weren’t employees of the state, he wouldn’t say).
Rather than explore the issue of press freedom, however, Wexler used the opportunity to laud the regime’s openness. In the midst of an interview with a radio station, he pushed it further.
“I just wanted to see what would happen,” he said to me, glee evident. “I just started to say some negative things. I was play-acting; I said some negative things about the election, about governance. And when we got done, I asked him if he was going to play ’em and he said ‘Yes.’”
Here, Wexler said, was proof that the Kazakh media are independent: a reporter told Wexler that it would air his feigned, mildly critical comments about the election. Alas, Wexler ultimately told the reporter that it was all just an experiment. Psych!
Wexler’s foray is emblematic of a new trend in authoritarian statecraft, whereby dictatorial regimes mimic the behaviors and institutions of normal democracies. Elections are integral to democracy, and so authoritarians have taken to impersonating these exercises of popular will. Barring international monitors, running unopposed, such shopworn tactics of the tin pot dictator are passé; the 21st-century despot invites “zombie monitors” like Robert Wexler and quietly backs fake opposition candidates to run against him.
“Authoritarian regimes are innovating and developing their own counternorms to thwart established and credible international election monitoring efforts,” writes Melissa Aten on Resurgent Dictatorship, a new web-based initiative of the National Endowment for Democracy that monitors the assault by dictatorships on democratic norms and institutions. Subtler than outright election rigging, election faking is the wave of the future.
This is not the first time Wexler has traveled to Kazakhstan and sung its praises. A 2007 study of private congressional trips taken over the course of seven years found the cost of Wexler’s 20 overseas excursions in this period to total $174,004. A 2002 visit to Kazakhstan was the second-most expensive of all individual trips taken by congressmen, costing nearly $30,000. (Wexler flew business class, and I know this because we shared a flight from Frankfurt to Washington).
When I asked Wexler if he or his think tank were receiving money from the Kazakh government or corporations that do business there, he said no.
Keep in mind that Wexler made a name for himself as one of the leading propagators of the accusation that George W. Bush and his brother Jeb, then Florida governor, “stole” the 2000 presidential election. “This does not serve America well, whether someone is Democrat or Republican or anything else, if the election for president hinges on an illegitimate result,” he told CNN at the time.
Wexler was a vociferous critic of the notorious “butterfly ballot,” which had a confusing layout that led many of his elderly constituents to vote mistakenly for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore. At least those ballots presented voters with a real choice. Whatever one thinks about the disputed 2000 election, it is beyond pathetic that a former member of one of the world’s great representative institutions, a self-styled crusader for democracy—who alleged that the president of the United States stole an election and lied to the American people about it—would issue a clean bill of health to a Central Asian police state where the same man has been president for 26 years.