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Crushing win for Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, polls slammed by watchdog

Agence France Presse - April 4, 2011

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has scored a crushing win in presidential polls, harvesting over 95 per cent of votes and raising worries about democracy in Central Asia's richest state.

The central election commission said the first official results showed the incumbent had won 95.5 per cent of the vote on mass turnout of 89.9 per cent both figures beating Nazarbayev's performance in his last re-election in 2005.

But international observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) immediately cast a shadow over his triumph, slamming the polls as short of "genuine democratic" standards.

Daan Everts, the head of the long-term election observation mission said: "Regrettably we have to conclude that this election could and should have been better. It showed the urgency of implementing the long-awaited reforms."

"Needed reforms for holding genuine democratic elections still have to materialise as this election revealed shortcomings similar to those in previous elections," the observer mission said in a statement. The observers reported "serious irregularities, including numerous instances of seemingly identical signatures on voter lists and cases of ballot box stuffing," the statement added.

The snap poll was boycotted by the leaders of the main opposition and watched closely by Western embassies after social revolutions swept veteran leaders from power in other Muslim nations in the Arab world.

In a bizarre development that confirmed the uncompetitive nature of the polls, one of the three challengers, environmentalist Mels Yeleusizov, said he had "expressed my respect for the winner" by voting for Nazarbayev himself.

Opposition leaders argued that the three men facing Nazarbayev had been placed in the field by the government to make the vote look legitimate.

The 70-year-old leader in power since Kazakhstan was still a Soviet republic in 1989 underscored the scripted tone of yesterday's election by proclaiming himself winner before the official results were announced.

"You expressed trust in our programs for the future," a beaming Nazarbayev told his supporters.

"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.

The official turnout figure will come as a particular disappointment for opposition leaders who called a boycott of the vote the only form of protest left for those unhappy with Nazarbayev's regime.

State television spent most of election day airing interviews with ruling party dignitaries who urged to people to vote and a top aide to the president scoffed at the boycott idea once the turnout figure was made public.

"Those who called for a boycott have shown that they know nothing about their own people," presidential aide Yermukhamet Yertysbayev told Khabar state television.

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 per cent 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.

"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."

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