Clare Nuttall in Astana -
Kazakhstan's April 3 presidential poll returned President Nursultan Nazarbayev to office with an inconceivable 95% of the vote on a 90% turnout, but the election was marred by widespread allegations of ballot box stuffing and heavy pressure on state employees to turn out and vote for the president.
There was never any doubt that the early presidential elections - brought forward from December 2012 - would result in another victory for Nazarbayev, who has ruled the country since independence 20 years ago. The latest election raised the president's share of the vote from an already high 91.2% in 2005 to 95.5%.
The official turnout figure of 89.9%, released by the Central Elections Commission, was also startlingly high, especially given low-key campaigns and the lack of any serious challenger. None of Nazarbayev's three rivals took more than 2% of the vote. The closest runner-up was Gani Kazymov, leader of the Patriots Party, with just 1.9%. The other two candidates, Zhambyl Akhmetbekov of the Communist People's Party of Kazakhstan, and Mels Yeleusizov of the environmental movement Tabagat, took 1.4% and 1.2% of the vote respectively.
Two Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) institutions - the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODHIR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly - issued a highly critical report on the conduct of the elections on April 4. OSCE officials highlighted ballot box stuffing, repeat voting and a high degree of pressure on the electorate to vote.
Despite an opposition campaign calling on people to boycott the elections, turnout was as high as 96.9% in Almaty oblast and 95.1% in Aktobe oblast.
Almaty city had the lowest turnout figures in the country. Many people, especially those in their 20s and 30s, said in the run-up to the poll they did not plan to vote. "Why should I vote? I already know who will win," Mikael, a 29-year-old petroleum engineer, said to bne three days before the elections. But while turnout in Almaty was comparatively low, a respectable 68.5% of the electorate is still reported to have voted.
Meanwhile, at the town of Akkol in Akmola oblast, where the regional turnout was 89.7%, a crowd of around 40 residents were gathered outside the polling station at the Palace of Culture as a busload of foreign journalists arrived. "For Nazarbayev!" says one woman, standing in her boots and parka amid patches of snow, when asked whom she voted for. "Because he is so good for the country. He keeps the peace and our standard of living goes up year by year. We want him to stay the president for another 20 years."
In the Palace of Culture lobby, a stand had been set up selling snacks, meat and dairy products at discounted prices, a fairly common sight at polling stations. In other towns, voters left with small electrical appliances such as kettles and hand blenders - rewards for first-time voters and those who turned up early in the day.
However, the OSCE/ODIHR report highlights more serious problems with the election process, with OSCE observers citing many incidences of group voting and ballot box stuffing. At an Astana press conference the day after the elections, Tonino Picula, head of the short-term OSCE observer mission to Kazakhstan, told journalists: "Kazakhstan should be praised for its economic growth, but unfortunately this election is a sign that its democratic processes have not grown at the same pace."
Ambassador Daan Everts, head of the OSCE/ODIHR long-term election observation mission, agreed that many shortcomings seen in earlier elections in Kazakhstan were still present. "On election day, there were reports from all over the country of undue pressure on people to vote. This would explain the spectacularly high turnout," Everts said.
In particular, there was "rather strong" pressure from state institutions such as universities, hospitals and military establishments. "For example, supervisors at one institution told their subordinates that if turnout was not 100%, there would be severe penalties," Everts said. "Urging people to vote is not wrong, but this came very close to forcing people to vote, which is against the law."
Nazarbayev himself voted early in the day at the National Library polling station on Astana's left bank. Soon after the early elections were announced, Nazarbayev said that he did not plan to campaign actively, but would stand on his record over the last 20 years. However, the presidential Nur Otan party mounted an effective campaign on his behalf.
At his victory rally in Astana, Nazarbayev seemed untroubled by criticism of the election process as he prepared for his fourth term as president. "More than 90% for a candidate. Why, this is a sensation for Western countries," he said to supporters, Ria Novosti reported. "If polls usually divide a nation into various party blocs, we have united. While the word sees bloodshed and ethnic conflict, we - all the ethnic groups and religions of Kazakhstan - are one."
Even one of his rival candidates, Mels Yeleusizov, told journalists that he had voted for Nazarbayev. Other opposition parties including the unregistered Alga! DVK party and the Communist Party of Kazakhstan launched the "Don't Vote" campaign urging people to boycott the elections.
Since the elections have, as expected, resulted in Nazarbayev's re-election, this will pave the way for the government to make changes should it wish to do so. There is speculation that either a shift in the country's socio-economic course - dropping some of the post-Soviet social support in favour of a more market-oriented approach - or a cabinet reshuffle, is on the cards.
Renaissance Capital's deputy head of research, Milena Ivanova-Venturini, pointed out that after expressing his thanks to supporters, Narzarbayev "stated that the Kazakh people have given him a carte blanche to continue with his reform agenda in the spheres of the economy, politics and social measures."
The most important item on the government's agenda is the People's IPO process, which will see minority stakes in some of Kazakhstan's largest state-owned enterprises floated on the domestic stock exchange.
Timothy Ash, head of emerging markets research at RBS, writes in a note that Nazarbayev's re-election, "will help re-assure/re-affirm political stability in the country. The longer-term issue, though, remains around the succession to Nazarbayev, given he is currently 70 years of age."
Kazakhstan's nascent democracy may face its next test sooner rather than later. There are rumours that the parliamentary elections, which were due to take place in 2012, may also be rescheduled for later this year.
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