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?
Nazarbayev, who ran Kazakhstan as Communist Party chief before moving seamlessly to become the father of an independent nation, has long championed the idea of "Eurasianism," or a combination of autocratic politics and liberal market economics inspired by success stories like China and Singapore.
"You go to Kazakhstan and you see everywhere the evidence of an oriental personality cult. Billboards have slogans like: 'Nazarbayev is the second sun in our sky'. You might think you're in North Korea or someplace," says Sergei Strokan, international affairs columnist for the Moscow daily Kommersant. "But that's not the full story, because Nazarbayev has overseen liberal market reforms, a huge influx of foreign investment, and modernized the place in other ways."
Kazakhstan has opened up to the world under Nazarbayev, as foreign companies have flocked in to exploit its vast oil, gas, and mineral wealth, bringing an influx of over $120 billion in investment. The country's per capita GDP has soared from around $700 two decades ago to about $8,000 today, giving the highest standard of living in the central Asia region.
Criticism and alliance
But Kazakhstan ranked 105th in the global anticorruption watchdog Transparency International's 2010 annual corruption perceptions list of 178 countries.
There have been persistent allegations of high living and bribe-taking in circles of family and supporters around Nazarbayev, some of it detailed in Wikileaks cables( here, here, and here). Basic rights such as freedom of speech and assembly are seriously limited.
But Nazarbayev has proved to be a staunch friend of the West, providing indispensable aid in operations to resupply the beleaguered NATO forces in Afghanistan and assisting in US-led efforts against nuclear proliferation.
Last year, Kazakhstan even held the chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which was crowned with an extravagant December summit in Astana that included many international accolades to Nazarbayev's leadership. Nazarbayev has also moved to integrate Kazakhstan's economy with that of neighboring Russia and, not surprisingly, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was the first foreign leader to congratulate him on his electoral victory Monday.
Nazarbayev has gotten around the Kazakh Constitution's two-term presidential limit by holding a 1995 referendum enabling him to seek a fresh term, and then sponsoring a 2007 constitutional amendment that permits Nazarbayev – and no one else – to be reelected as many times as he wants.
"This system seems to work fine as long as Kazakhstan's economy is strong and Nazarbayev remains alive," says Mr. Strokan. "But its Achilles Heel is the same as so many other dictatorships, in that it is totally focused on one single personality. Nazarbayev is already 70 years old, and he's done nothing to groom a successor or encourage genuine political alternatives. When he leaves, as he must one day, Kazakhstan could face some very traumatic times."