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Kazakh leader set to coast to election victory

Associated Press - April 1, 2011

Peter Leonard, Almaty, Kazakhstan Kazakhstan's president is so certain of victory in Sunday's snap election that he hasn't bothered hitting the campaign trail and only published his manifesto days before the vote.

Nursultan Nazarbayev's closest adviser predicts, probably accurately, that he will garner some 90 percent of the ballots in a presidential election that few expected or even wanted.

Nazarbayev's term was to have ended in 2012, but he called the early election in January after a proposed referendum on canceling the next two elections was ruled unconstitutional. He said he made the call to ensure that the country's people retained their trust in democracy, but critics speculated he was trying to head off any popular uprising like those that were beginning to sweep the Middle East and North Africa.

Kazakhstan is under Nazarbayev's firm control. His Nur Otan party holds every seat in the lower house of parliament and lawmakers last year named him "leader of the nation" a title that gives him the right to approve important national and foreign policies after he retires and grants him lifetime immunity from prosecution for acts committed during his rule.

Such authoritarian trappings aside, Nazarbayev is held in high esteem by much of the electorate, credited by many with steering the country away from its uncertain beginnings in the collapse of the Soviet Union to become Central Asia's most vibrant economy.

"Part of his appeal to voters is that he has exciting plans for the next 10 years of Kazakhstan's development," including diversifying the economy away from dependence on natural resources and aiming for 30 percent economic growth over a decade, presidential adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbayev wrote in a recent article.

But with groups such as Freedom House labeling Kazakhstan as "Not Free," many feel this promise of affluence has come at a high price.

Government opponents have criticized Sunday's election as unfair. International observers already have hinted they are unhappy with the election's lack of transparency and the lackluster spirit of competition displayed among the candidates.

"The presidential contest unfolds between the incumbent president and three other candidates, who, by their own admission, want the incumbent to win," the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's election monitoring arm said this week in a pre-election report.

Other than Nazarbayev, contenders in the election are Gani Kasymov, an unabashedly gruff senator who heads the pro-government Party of Patriots, and Zhambyl Akhmetbekov, leader of Kazakhstan's second most popular Communist party. Environmentalist Mels Yeleusizov says he is running to raise awareness about green issues. Critics deride these candidates as nominal opposition put in place to make the election appear democratic.

Most campaign posters visible in the country's main cities belong to the Nazarbayev campaign, and the president has as usual dominated the daily television news headlines.

The OSCE also noted in its report that newspapers that could serve as a platform for opposition positions, such as the vibrant independent weekly Respublika, have continued to be subjected to a campaign of official harassment.

Kazakhstan's economy has over the past decade enjoyed a stellar rise, which was only briefly dented by a fall in global demand for energy exports during the global financial crisis. With the International Monetary Fund predicting a 5-percent rise in economic growth this year, fears of economic stagnation appear to have been dispelled.

The only potential bump along Nazarbayev's path to crushing victory is the prospect of a poor turnout. Leading opposition politicians have refused to take part in the vote and have urged their supporters to boycott the election.

"My personal sense is that the turnout at the election will not surpass 60 or 65 percent," said independent political analyst Aidos Sarimov. "The main issue is who will join the government and the presidential administration once the elections have been held," Sarimov said.

With only the Nur Otan party represented in the lower house of parliament, Kazakhstan's political scene is threadbare. But that is expected to change next year, when the next round of legislative elections is to be held. Under new election rules approved in 2009, the party that wins the second largest number of votes will still be allocated seats, even if it fails to pass the 7 percent threshold normally needed to get seats.

Analysts believe that party will likely only be a nominal opposition force, however. "You may have a party that is not among those that would be considered to be truly opposition, registered or otherwise," said Anthony Bowyer, a Kazakhstan expert at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

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