Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev appears set to extend his rule by seven years as president of Kazakhstan with an exit poll showing him winning a snap election in a landslide as expected on November 20.
Toqaev won 82.45 percent of the vote, the poll by the Open Society Institute showed.
First preliminary results are due on November 21.
Despite billing himself as a reformer, Toqaev didn’t allow genuine opposition parties to register and take part in the election.
His five fellow candidates — which include two women — were little-known figures who are not seen as real competitors.
Final voter turnout was put at 68.7 percent by the Central Election Commission.
Police detained a few dozen people who staged small-scale protests against the vote in Almaty, calling it illegal, according to opposition groups and local media. Police said some were soon released, while others faced misdemeanor charges.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which sent a monitoring team to observe the vote, was due to give its assessment on November 21.
Ahead of the vote, the OSCE had criticized Kazakhstan’s failure to meet electoral recommendations, including “conditions of eligibility and registration of candidates.”
Independent observers from Kazakh NGOs said in many cases they had faced restrictions in trying to monitor the vote.
The November 20 election came nearly three months after Kazakhstan replaced its system limiting presidents to two consecutive five-year terms with a single seven-year term. The constitutional changes were proposed by Toqaev as part of his campaign to create what he calls “a new Kazakhstan.”
But in September, Toqaev called for early presidential and parliamentary elections, saying a new mandate was needed to “maintain the momentum of reforms” following a June referendum that stripped ex-President Nursultan Nazarbaev of his prestigious “elbasy” (leader of the nation) status.
The referendum to amend the constitution — which included the new presidential term limit — has been presented by Toqaev as an important step to shift Kazakhstan from a “super-presidential form of government to a presidential republic with a strong parliament.”
But critics say the overhaul didn’t change the nature of the authoritarian regime and failed to remove any significant power that the president’s office held.
After casting his ballot in the capital, Astana, Nazarbaev told reporters that he had voted for the person to whom he gave power, meaning Toqaev.
“I made my choice already back then, and the choice is definitive,” Nazarbaev said, adding the county now needed “unity.”
Despite his resignation, Nazarbaev retained significant political power and influence as the head of the Security Council, while his cronies continued to hold important positions in government and business structures.
But the situation changed dramatically in the wake of deadly nationwide unrest in January, when protesters demanded an end to Nararbaev and his family’s grip on the country’s politics and wealth.
Toqaev subsequently removed Nazarbaev as Security Council chief, taking it over himself. Several of Nazarbaev’s relatives and allies have been removed from their positions and some have been arrested and prosecuted on corruption charges.
In an apparent attempt to boost his popularity, Toqaev raised the minimum wage by 17 percent, increased pensions by 27 percent by 2025, and lowered the retirement age for women from 63 to 61. He announced the initiatives on September 1 in the same speech that he called for early elections.
Toqaev said on November 20 that he would continue “resetting” the political system by calling early parliamentary elections next year.
The parliamentary elections are expected to take place next year. The current Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament, is dominated by the ruling party, Amanat, formerly known as Nur Otan.
Activists Jailed, Scrutinized
In the run-up to the election, several political activists have been arrested across the country.
On November 15, Almaty police detained Aset Abishev, a member of the founding committee of the Algha Qazaqstan (Forward, Kazakhstan) party that has been trying unsuccessfully for eight months to get registered for the election. The authorities didn’t say why Abishev was arrested.
Last week, five other members of the unregistered party were detained for taking part in an unsanctioned rally in August.
Police in the southwestern town of Zhanaozen detained prominent opposition activist Estai Qarashaev on November 15 and sentenced him to six days in jail on a charge of violating regulations for holding public gatherings. The sentencing means Qarashaev won’t be released until a day after the election.
Rights activist Serik Ydyryshev was detained in his home village of Bobrovka in the East Kazakhstan region just days before the election. There was no immediate comment from officials about his arrest. But Ydyryshev’s wife told RFE/RL that his detention was linked to the upcoming election.
On November 14, Almaty-based opposition activist Rashid Qamaldanov was sentenced to 15 days in jail for taking part in an unauthorized rally earlier this year.
In the capital, Astana, jailed activist Sandughash Qantarbaeva began a hunger strike last weekend, protesting her administrative arrest. Qantarbaeva said she is being kept behind bars to prevent her from taking part in protests on election day.
Many activists complained to RFE/RL that police have been monitoring their homes and movement in the run-up to the election.
Contacted by RFE/RL, an Interior Ministry official denied that police are allegedly taking measures to prevent the activists from holding rallies.
Source: Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.