JUST two weeks before parliamentary elections here last year, TV and radio company ''M'' broadcast two shows critical of the Kazak leadership. Suddenly, the station was evicted from its state-owned offices and its radio signal was shut off. ''No one closed us down,'' says station director Sergei Duvanov, ''but we lost the ability to work.'' The station is now back on the air, and President Nursultan Nazarbayev reprimanded the officials responsible - but after the election. On Wednesday, here in one of the world's largest and most resource-rich countries, embracing a swath of Asia's girth bigger than all of western Europe, voters take to the polls again, and will almost certainly approve a new constitution allowing only very weak checks on the power of its president. Some opponents of the Nazarbayev government call it a ''soft dictatorship'' - soft because it has allowed free speech, an independent press, and limited political opposition since independence from Moscow in 1991; dictatorship because he maintains tight control over elections and has been ruling by decree since he disbanded the parliament in March. An undemocratic trend is running through the young Central Asian countries of the former Soviet Union toward stronger presidential power and extending the terms of sitting presidents. From Kalmytia, a semiautonomous republic within Russia on the shores of the Caspian Sea, to Kyrgyzstan along the Chinese border, the terms of sitting presidents have recently been extended to the turn of the century and beyond. In April, Kazakstan voters extended the term of Mr. Nazarbayev, a longtime Soviet official, until the year 2000. Kazakstan is at least more liberal than neighboring Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. These countries have Soviet-style constitutions that they simply do not use, says Martha Brill Olcott, a leading Western scholar of Kazakstan, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. For Kazakstan, ''it remains to be seen whether power is in the prince's mouth or in the rule of law,'' as one Western diplomat puts it. Nazarbayev and his ministers argue that Kazakstan needs to centralize power in a strong presidency to sustain a stable government. Even television journalist Duvanov, who has broadcast interviews with opponents of the new constitution and who calls it ''the way to dictatorship,'' agrees that the president has a point. ''Democracy for us is now as dangerous as dictatorship,'' he says. ''What's worse: a dictatorship that allows free markets and makes the country richer, or democracy with a communist parliament without private property?'' The parliament opposed the president on nearly everything for two years, says Deputy Prime Minister Imangaly Tasmagambetov. ''It was shaking the foundations of the state with little more than popular slogans. At this stage, we do not have an experienced parliament,'' he explains. ''We do not have the basis for a strong parliament.'' Many Kazak voters seem to buy Nazarbayev's view - that without his strong hand, the country would spin out of control. But some Western diplomats believe that Nazarbayev has exaggerated the antimarket tendency of the last parliament. The parliament was frustrated by the pain that privatization of industry was putting their constituents through, says one diplomat here, and opposed the undemocratic, secretive way it was carried out. But relatively few members opposed economic reform itself. Further, the diplomat adds, ''there's a lot of question about how committed to reform Nazarbayev is.'' Mr. Tasmagambetov argues that Kazakstan abides by three principles inconsistent with dictatorship: pluralism of opinions, free elections, and free markets. On-the-street interviews show that Kazaks are unafraid to express a diversity of opinions, even in front of TV cameras. The censorship Duvanov's station faced seems to have abated. Besides, the station owns its own transmitters now, although the government still owns the tower. (''You never know when it will shut down for maintenance,'' Duvanov says.) And the independent newspaper Karavan owns its own printing presses and controls its ink supply. But last week, an anti-constitution activist was badly beaten. His colleagues suspect police but have no evidence. Other demonstrators were arrested, but then released with fines or warnings for gathering without a permit. Western observers are not willing to credit Nazarbayev with free elections. The last parliamentary elections were ''heavily rigged'' at the regional level, says a diplomat. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized the fairness of the elections afterward. As for free markets, state assets and industries are very slowly privatizing, but through often unexplained government decisions that create a widespread assumption of official profiteering - an assumption vouched for even by senior officials.