VOTERS in Kazakhstan turned out in high numbers at polling stations yesterday for a presidential election guaranteed to overwhelmingly reconfirm the incumbent, who has ruled over the former Soviet republic for more than 25 years.
The election is taking place against the backdrop of a slump in economic growth and an air of anxiety over unrest in the nearby countries of Ukraine and Afghanistan.
Nursultan Nazarbayev, 74, wrote in an opinion piece before the election that the vote would give the elected president a clear mandate to lead the country through potentially troubled times.
“The upcoming election will strengthen the stability of Kazakhstan. This remains the main condition for the sustainable development of our country and completing the large-scale tasks of modernising our economy and society,” he wrote.
Mr Nazarbayev’s victory over his two nominal rivals, a trade union official and a Communist politician, is all but a formality. Polling stations are scheduled to remain open until 8pm local time.
Out of the several dozen voters questioned outside a polling station at a school in the business capital, Almaty, only two declared their intent to vote for Mr Nazarbayev’s rivals and the stability message appeared to have been driven home.
“I am voting for Nazarbayev, because I need no changes in my life. I am happy with things as they are under the current authorities,” said Daniyar Yerzhanov, 43. “We businessmen don’t need the kind of democracy you get in Ukraine. We need stability and predictability.”
Riding high on the back of its oil, gas and mineral wealth, Kazakhstan has posted healthy growth figures over the past two decades, with the exception of a notable blip during the global economic crisis in 2008.
However, low oil prices and the recession in neighbouring Russia, a large trading partner that has been hit with international sanctions for its role in the unrest in Ukraine, are dampening performance.
All international financial organisations see the country continuing its growth trajectory this year and the next, but at a far less impressive rate than previously.
The political unrest that led to the toppling of a Russia-friendly leader in Ukraine in 2014 sent ripples of alarm throughout authoritarian regions of the former Soviet Union. Kazakhstan has watched with dismay the war that ensued there as ethnic Russians were encouraged by Moscow to mount an armed insurrection.
Kazakhstan has its own substantial Russian minority and there are worries about the potential for such a large ethnic group to pursue a separatist agenda similar to that seen in east Ukraine.
Mr Nazarbayev did little campaigning for the election, but he did dwell intensely on rehearsing well-worn refrains on social and ethnic harmony.
The weekend presidential election was preceded on Thursday by a congress of the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan, a talking shop devoted to cultivating national unity. At the event, Mr Nazarbayev declared the authorities would “robustly prevent any form of ethnic radicalism, wherever it arises”.
Mr Nazarbayev will be almost 80 when the next presidential term comes to a close, and many worry if his health will hold out. No clear succession plan is in place and with all semblance of political competition having been snuffed out.