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Kazakhstan holds presidential elections after a turbulent year

#Kazakhstan #holds #presidential #elections #turbulent #year

Kazakhstan holds a snap presidential vote Sunday expected to cement incumbent Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s grip on power, months after deadly unrest spurred a historic power shift in the Central Asian country.

Last January, the vast former Soviet republic sank into chaos during protests over high cost of living which left 238 dead.

Kazakhstan has since then stabilised but tensions persist, as shown by the arrest on Thursday of seven opposition supporters accused of an attempted coup.

In this context, 12 million Kazakhs are 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 all but 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 over a new leaf, Tokayev said he sought a “new mandate of trust from the people” in this election.

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

Critics are still sidelined and the 69-year-old is facing no real opposition as all five of his competitors 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 he obtained the backing of former ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev.

For the following two-and-a-half years, he played a role of loyal protege.

But that changed after protests erupted in January and Tokayev ordered law enforcement to “shoot to kill” demonstrators.

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

He announced reforms, a constitutional referendum and introduced single presidential terms of seven years.

The Kazakh leader also stood up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine shocked former Soviet republics. 

The offensive reawakened Kazakh concerns that Moscow may have ambitions on 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, China visited Kazakstan, as well as many European high officials and Pope Francis just this year.

Tokayev also directly clashed with Putin on a visit to Saint Petersburg in June.

He said Moscow’s move to recognise Ukrainian separatist regions — that 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 economic capital Almaty, entrepreneur Janiya Nakizbekova said she had “great hope in Tokayev”.

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

“There is no credible candidate. There is no real choice. I’ll be voting against all of them,” said Asset Terirgaliyev, a retired resident of Almaty. 

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

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

They were accused of planning a coup.

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

Observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) criticised Kazakhstan’s failure to meet electoral recommendations, including “conditions of eligibility and registration of candidates”.

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