ASTANA, Apr 3 – Kazakhstan is voting in a mostly ceremonial election that is set to stretch President Nurusltan Nazarbayev\’s rule into a third decade amid Western worries about democracy in the resource-rich state.
The Sunday vote comes against the backdrop of violent social revolutions sweeping veteran leaders from power in other Muslim nations and has already received criticism from Western observers about the ease of Nazarbayev\’s expected win.
But no such unrest seemed imminent in a Central Asian republic whose younger generation is taught to refer to Nazarbayev as "Papa" and which has spent the past decade registering the region\’s fastest economic growth.
Officials said this stability — a mantra of the Nazarbayev regime since it rose to power during the Soviet era in 1989 — will allow the president to open the system to other voices and make the republic a firmer ally of the West.
"President Nazarbayev has made a strong decision for himself and got the support of the population to move toward a Western-style democracy," Prime Minister Karim Massimov told AFP in an interview.
"Checks and balances, this is a very important step. And for sustainable development in the future, checks and balances — including of the political system — are needed."
But he added: "You can\’t do it right away. It takes time."
For now the 70-year-old former steelworker seemed headed for a whopping victory against three minor candidates who have all confirmed their private support for the president\’s rule.
A top aide to Nazarbayev has predicted an outcome improving on the 91.2 percent the president received in the last election in 2005 and observers have noted that all three opponents have vowed only to compete for second place.
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe will release a report Monday ruling whether Kazakhstan had made a "marked improvement" on previous elections that have all been condemned as unfair.
The vote has also been marred by mystery surrounding the fate of the missing publisher of Golos Respubliki (Voice of the Republic) — the country\’s most outspoken critic of the president\’s unflinching hold on power.
The paper\’s reporters believe Daniyar Moldashyov was abducted shortly after being attacked outside his home and the Committee to Protect Journalists said it was "gravely concerned" for the publisher\’s fate.
But a top aide to the president said the alleged disappearance was probably aimed at spoiling the world\’s perception of the election and promised reforms in the years to come aimed at gradually reducing the president\’s dominance.
"You have to understand Nazarbayev\’s unique role in Kazakh society. He is our first and only president," presidential adviser Nurlan Yermekbayev told AFP in an interview.
"The next leader will not be the same," the aide stressed.
One suggestion would see Kazakhstan — with no clear successor to Nazarbayev in place — eventually become a parliamentary republic reminiscent of a European state.
"The role of parliament has been steadily growing in our society," the presidential adviser said.
But such promises have been dismissed as either too vague or unconvincing by opposition leaders who are boycotting the elections en masse.
"We have not had fair elections in 20 years," said former Senate member and current human rights leader Zauresh Battalova.
"We are hoping that the next elections will be different. But all we can really do is hope and fight."