Kazakhs go to the polls on Sunday to elect their first new leader in 30 years, although ex-president Nursultan Nazarbayev”s influence will likely continue as his handpicked successor heads for all but certain victory.
Career diplomat and interim President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, 66, is running for the country”s ruling party with enthusiastic backing from Nazarbayev, who stepped down from the presidency in March.
That announcement by the strongman shocked Kazakhs who had lived under his rule since Soviet times, but he is still expected to call the shots in the oil-rich Central Asian state of 18 million people.
Tokayev”s six rivals, including one low-key opposition figure, are little-known in Muslim-majority Kazakhstan.
Tokayev, in contrast, has been endorsed by pop stars and film actors, and appears to have the weight of the state machine behind him.
Nazarbayev”s decades in power saw an oil-fuelled economic boom that drowned out complaints about human rights abuses and a lack of media freedom.
But a precipitous downturn in the last five years, brought about by the fall in global oil prices and an economic slump in neighbouring Russia, has fuelled popular resentment against the regime.
“I don”t think we can consider these elections legitimate,” said Kassymkhan Kapparov, the director of the independent Bureau for Economic Research of Kazakhstan.
The head of the think-tank told AFP that the government is encouraging state sector workers such as doctors and teachers to vote for Tokayev, while campaign “volunteers” are being paid from the state budget.
But there are contrarian voices, too.
“I am actively boycotting the vote,” 24-year-old Almaty resident Temudzhin Duisenov told AFP.
Duisenov, who was briefly arrested last year for attempting to participate in a protest, said the fact that Tokayev called the snap election in April gave the opposition no chance to prepare.
“No candidate that I would want to support would be able to prepare an election campaign in (two months),” he said.
Following a wave of protests at the start of the year, Nazarbayev sacked the government, pointing to their poor economic performance.
Mothers on low income, who are demanding increases in state support, were a driving force behind demonstrations. Nazarbayev later ordered the payments to be increased.
Nazarbayev”s foreign-based nemesis, banker Mukhtar Ablyazov, has called for protests in cities across the country when Kazakhs vote on Sunday.
Former foreign minister Tokayev has campaigned on a platform of “continuity”, carrying on from Nazarbayev”s three-decade rule, which state propaganda depicts as a never-ending triumph.
Tokayev has already pledged that Nazarbayev — the lifelong chair of the country”s powerful security council and constitutionally honoured “Leader of the Nation” — will retain a decisive policymaking role.
One of his first acts after stepping into Nazarbayev”s former office was to propose that capital Astana — which Nazarbayev transformed from a steppe town into a million-strong city — be renamed “Nur-Sultan” in honour of his mentor.
The change went ahead without public consultation.
Journalist Amirzhan Kosanov is the only candidate in the race with a track record for criticising the government.
However, he has come under fire for a lacklustre and tepid campaign in which he vaguely criticised the system, rather than attacking either Tokayev or his predecessor directly.
Sergey Duvanov, an opposition-minded rights monitor, said he had discussed with Kosanov how to ramp up his campaign and raise his profile.
“But then the week after his registration, he disappeared from view and hid in some village up north (of Kazakhstan),” Duvanov told AFP.
Kosanov has denied accusations he struck a deal with the regime, telling AFP in an interview that it was important that people vote for him rather than boycott the ballot.
“I don”t know how the vote will go and how many violations there will be, but it is important the regime sees it has to reckon with the people,” he said.
The election will also see Kazakhstan”s first female presidential candidate — Daniya Yespayeva who is competing for a pro-government party.