Astana: Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev claimed victory on Monday in an election that stretched his rule into a third decade amid Western concern about the scripted nature of the vote in the energy-rich state.
An exit poll by the pro-government ASIP agency said the incumbent won 94.82 percent of the vote while officials put final turnout at 89.9 percent -- both figures besting Nazarbayev`s performance in his last re-election in 2005.
The authenticity of the vote was thrown into further doubt by an admission from one of the three little-known challengers that he decided to cast his ballot for Nazarbayev as a sign of "respect".
Western embassies in Astana were eyeing the election with keen interest after social revolutions swept veteran leaders from power in other Muslim nations but Kazakh officials insist there was no parallel with their president.
Nazarbayev -- in power since Kazakhstan was still a Soviet republic in 1989 -- underscored the predetermined tone of the vote by proclaiming himself winner before the official results were announced.
"Preliminary data from the Central Election Commission and exit poll data have established that the Kazakh people, our citizens, approve of the work I have been doing all these 20 years," the 70-year-old President said on Monday.
"What other honours, what other support is needed for a person who heads the country -- the President," the veteran Kazakh leader said in apparent reference to Western criticism for the vote.
His visit to party headquarters ended with Nazarbayev -- a yellow party flag draped around his shoulders -- singing a traditional Kazakh song to rousing applause from adoring supporters.
Opposition leaders boycotted the snap polls and argued that the three men facing Nazarbayev had been placed in the field by the government to make the vote look legitimate.
And those suspicions appeared to be confirmed by news that one of the challengers -- an environmentalist named Mels Yeleusizov -- said he "expressed (his) respect for the winner" by voting for Nazarbayev.
Observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have already questioned the ease of Nazarbayev`s victory and will issue a Kazakh election report on Monday at 2:00 pm (0800 GMT).
Kazakhstan has come under fire for instituting effective one-party rule in which all political and economic decisions are made by Nazarbayev and his hand-picked ministers and assistants.
But this closed system has pursued a decade of business-friendly policies that have ensured 8.5 percent annual growth and a dramatic improvement in the lives the 16.4 million people living across the vast country`s steppes.
Officials insist that this stability -- a mantra of Nazarbayev -- will allow the President to one day open up politics to other voices and make the republic a firmer ally of the West.
"Checks and balances, this is a very important step. And for sustainable development in the future, checks and balances -- including of the political system -- are needed," Prime Minister Karim Massimov said before the vote.
But he added: "You can`t do it right away. It takes time."
Another aide to the President suggested that any reforms may only apply to Nazrbayev`s successor and not to come into force for another decade.
"You have to understand Nazarbayev`s unique role in Kazakh society. He is our first and only President," presidential adviser Nurlan Yermekbayev said in an interview.
"The next leader will not be the same," the aide said.
Such promises have been dismissed as either too vague or unconvincing by the opposition.
"We have not had fair elections in 20 years," said former Senate member and current human rights leader Zauresh Battalova. "We are hoping that the next elections will be different. But all we can really do is hope and fight."