Kazakh strongman set for crushing poll win

Western embassies in Astana are eyeing the vote with keen interest.

Astana: Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev was set on Sunday to stretch his rule into a third decade by scoring a crushing poll win whose predetermined nature has raised alarm over democracy in the energy-rich state.

The usually soft-spoken Nazarbayev -- in power since the Soviet era -- delivered an unusually robust defence of the disputed election when he cast his ballot by noting that it was open to observers and featured four candidates.

Western embassies in Astana are eyeing the vote with keen interest after veteran leaders were swept from power in the Arab uprisings, although Kazakh officials have insisted there is no parallel with their President.

An entire generation of Kazakhs grew up in the mostly Muslim nation with the 70-year-old Nazarbayev as their President and the former steelworker was greeted with a stirring round of applause as he approached his ballot box with his wife.

"We are an open society and a democratic one," he said after voting at the National Academic Library in the ex-Soviet republic`s gleaming new capital Astana -- a symbol of Nazarbayev`s rule.

"All the presidential candidates had an equal opportunity to visit all the regions of our country. They had equal access to the media. They expressed their ideas, their thoughts to the Kazakh people," he added.

"They said valuable things that we can take away with us."

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 told AFP before the vote.

But he added: "You can`t do it right away. It takes time."

And Nazarbayev himself suggested that he intended to stay in full command by noting that the "election will decide our unity and our desire to do everything that I noted in my address" to the nation from January 28.

The scale of Nazarbayev`s expected victory is reflected both by his posters peppering the streets and image that never appears to leave television news broadcasts.

A top aide to Nazarbayev has predicted an outcome improving on the 91.2 percent the president received in the last election in 2005 -- an outcome worthy of a man who now bears the title of "leader of the nation".

But a top aide to the President said the nation`s next President is unlikely to enjoy the same sweeping powers as Nazarbayev.

"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 stressed.

Such promises have been dismissed as either too vague or unconvincing by opposition leaders who are boycotting the elections en masse.

"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."

Bureau Report