Kazakhstan holds presidential elections after a turbulent year

Kazakhstan holds presidential elections after a turbulent year


Kazakhstan is holding a swift presidential election on Sunday that is expected to consolidate the power of incumbent Kassym-Jomart Tokayev after deadly unrest sparked a historic shift in power in the Central Asian country.

Last January, the massive former Soviet republic descended into chaos during protests over the high cost of living that left 238 dead.

Kazakhstan has since stabilized, but tensions persist, as evidenced by Thursday’s arrest of seven opposition supporters accused of attempting a coup.

In connection with this, 12 million Kazakhs will be called to the polling stations between 0100 GMT and 1500 GMT.

First exit polls are expected around 1800 GMT.

Few expect surprises in the polls as Tokayev’s victory is far from a foregone conclusion.

Tokayev – once a steady hand known for lacking charisma – showed a ruthless side earlier this year by violently suppressing protests.

Hoping to turn a new leaf, Tokayev said he was seeking a “new people’s mandate of confidence” in this election.

He promised to create a “new Kazakhstan,” but economic difficulties remain, as do authoritarian instincts.

Critics continue to be left out and the 69-year-old faces no real opponent as all five of his rivals are virtually unknown.

– Shoot to Kill –

Tokayev came to power in 2019 after winning 70 percent of the vote in an election whose outcome was inevitable after winning the backing of former ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev.

For the next two and a half years he played the role of a loyal protégé.

That all changed after protests erupted in January and Tokayev ordered law enforcement to “shoot” protesters.

Tokayev then distanced himself from his former mentor Nazarbayev, purged his clan of positions of authority and promised a “new and just Kazakhstan”.

He announced reforms, a constitutional referendum and introduced a single seven-year term of office.

The Kazakh leader also opposed Russia’s Vladimir Putin as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shocked the former Soviet republics.

The offensive raised Kazakh concerns that Moscow may have ambitions in the north of the country, home to three million ethnic Russians.

In response, Tokayev strengthened his country’s ties not only with China but also with Europe.

The leaders of Russia, Turkey and China visited Kazakhstan, as did many European high officials and Pope Francis this year.

Tokayev also clashed directly with Putin during a visit to St. Petersburg in June.

He said Moscow’s move to recognize Ukrainian separatist regions – which it has since claimed to annex – would “lead to chaos”.

– “No real choice” –

His promises of democratic and economic reforms resonate with some voters.

In the country’s business capital, Almaty, entrepreneur Janiya Nakizbekova said she had “great hopes in Tokayev”.

But the “new Kazakhstan” feels like deja vu, with a deserted political landscape, hardly credible opposition and political pressure.

“There is no credible candidate. There is no real choice. I will vote against everyone,” said Asset Terirgaliyev, a retiree from Almaty.

Architect Aidar Ergaly said the elections were “a farce”.

Just days before the vote, seven people linked to exiled opponent Mukhtar Ablyazov were arrested.

They were accused of planning a coup d’état.

Tokayev also said the glorification of those who took part in the January protests was “unacceptable”.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) criticized Kazakhstan’s failure to meet election recommendations, including “conditions for the admission and registration of candidates”.

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