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Kazakhstan's snap elections draw international criticism

International observers point to serious irregularities during the Sunday snap presidential vote in Kazakhstan that resulted in a sweeping victory of longtime incumbent President Nazarbayev.

By Abdujalil AbdurasulovContributor, Correspondent / April 4, 2011

President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev (l.) casts his ballot, with his wife Sara, during the Kazakhstan presidential election at a polling station in Astana, Kazakhstan, Sunday, April 3.

Nikita Bassov/AP

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Almaty, Kazakhstan; Moscow

Pro-democracy turmoil may be shaking the foundations of one-man-rule in nearby Middle-East states, but Kazakhstan's longstanding leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, doesn't seem perturbed.

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The only leader the petroleum-rich, mainly Muslim central Asian nation of some 15-million has known since before it achieved independence from the Soviet Union 20 years ago, President Nazarbayev was reelected Sunday for another 5-year term with 95.5 percent of the votes, outshining even his own previous 2005 record of 91.2 percent.

International observers slammed the election as having "serious irregularities," and some domestic critics denounced it as merely "decorative," but Mr. Nazarbayev on Monday pointed triumphantly to the massive voter turnout – as high as 90 percent, according to some reports – as proof that Kazakhstan supports him.

"Of course this is a sensation for Western countries," Nazarbayev told hundreds of flag-waving, chanting supporters at a victory rally in the capital, Astana.

"In other countries, elections divide the nation into various party blocs, but we are united. While the world sees much bloodshed and ethnic conflict, all of the ethnic and religious groups in Kazakhstan are united as one."

None of Nazarbayev's three nominal opponents received more than 2 percent of the votes. They included Zhambyl Akhmetbekov, head of a pro-Nazarbayev splinter group from the Kazakh Communist Party, and pro-government Sen. Gani Kasymov.

Environmentalist Mels Yeleusizov, who picked up 1.2 percent of the votes, told journalists that he'd given his own ballot to Nazarbayev. "He is the winner. It was kind of a sports event," Mr. Yeleusizov said after voting in Kazakhstan's main city of Almaty. "Nazarbayev has won, and I shake his hand."

Some critics say the high turnout, and the overwhelming vote for Nazarbayev, was anything but spontaneous.

A student at Kazakh National University in Almaty, who asked her name not be used, said students were required to go to polling stations on threat of expulsion, and that supervisors carefully checked to make sure they had voted. The independent online regional news agency, fergana.ru, published copies of official documents requiring all local authorities to draw up a list of state employees along with evidence they had voted.

But some Kazakhstan experts argue that for all the stage-managing, the election result probably reflects the present mindset of most Kazakhstanis.

"These results were predictable. People don't want changes," says Murat Laumulin, an expert with the government-funded Kazakhstan Institute of Strategic Studies in Almaty. "There was no competition because the opposing candidates were not well known. In any case, many of the opposition's past slogans were adopted by the authorities and partially fulfilled.... Maybe we'll see real elections in 5 years' time, when a new generation will go to the polling stations."

Kazakhstan, the next Singapore?

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