Kazakh president wins vote at home, but not among international observers

April 4, 2011

— President Nursultan Nazarbayev won his nation’s overwhelming approval in Sunday’s presidential election with more than 95.5 percent of the ballots but lost the vote of confidence he sought from the world community.

International observers, who have repeatedly found fault with elections here, said Monday that similar shortcomings were found this time as well.

The 70-year-old Nazarbayev, who has been president for 20 years, won another five-year term — with voter turnout of 90 percent — after elections held two years ahead of time to lengthen his time in office.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized the feebleness of competition in the election while acknowledging that the polling was properly run.

“The absence of opposition candidates and of a vibrant political discourse resulted in a non-competitive environment,” according to a statement from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. “A limited field of candidates did not seek to challenge the incumbent.”

One of the three candidates said he had voted for Nazarbayev, and none criticized him during the two-month campaign.

“While Kazakhstan has achieved a lot since independence, this election has showed that the country still needs to make improvements to meet democratic commitments, particularly in the fields of freedom of assembly and media,” said Tonino Picula, who led the observation team. “We hope the country will use it as a learning experience to improve future elections and ensure genuine competition.”

On Sunday, Toti Elyubaeva, first secretary of one of the opposition communist parties here, said she was sure the vote would be irregular.

“The results will be false,” she said. “There’s no political will for transparent and fair elections.”

In many ways, the election captures the mood of the country. Western diplomats gauge Nazarbayev’s support at 90 percent. Kazakhs credit him with keeping their country protected from the turmoil that has roiled other Central Asian nations such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Nazarbayev’s advisers say he is committed to democracy and wants the world’s approval.

“We love him,” said Yuri Martenenko, a 61-year-old music teacher who stopped his battered vehicle to pick up a stranger hailing a ride — like many here, he needs the money. “He has made our country stable and led us well,” Martenenko said.

Nazarbayev has also worked at good relations with his neighbors, Russia and China, while staying friendly with the United States.

U.S. companies have extensive investments here, especially in the oil industry. Kazakhstan also permits the United States to use its airspace for flights supplying Afghanistan.

But Nazarbayev has given political opposition little room to maneuver and mature. Parties are permitted to operate only if registered with authorities, who require that they have at least 50,000 members. Every seat in Parliament is occupied by the president’s Nur Otan party — members are elected by proportional representation, and a party has to capture at least 7 percent of the vote to get into Parliament.

Candidates for president run up against troublesome requirements, including a Kazakh language test with murky standards. After 70 years in the Soviet Union and even longer under Russian domination, many here speak only Russian or poor Kazakh. Candidates have to collect more than 91,000 signatures to get on the ballot and only had two months to do so.

Out of 22 candidates who said they wanted to run, only three made it on the ballot with Nazarbayev. The three were not serious, the opposition said.

“The only one of them who wants to be president is Nazarbayev,” said Serikbai Alibaev, head of the Astana branch of the unregistered Nationwide Social Democratic Party. “The other three are actors on a stage.”

Some of the opposition organized a boycott of the election, getting their message out with Facebook and similar social networks and text messaging. They were no match for Nazarbayev’s popularity, enhanced by bosses everywhere telling their workers they needed to vote.

A few days before the election, presidential adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbayev created a small storm when he predicted that the president would win 95.5 percent of the vote.

“I was joking,” he said later in an interview, and said he hoped eager governors would not take it as an order. Somehow, the figure turned out that way anyhow.

Danil Nosenko, a member of the unregistered Alga party, said police disrupted all attempts to distribute literature about the boycott.

“They have us under surveillance,” he said, “and as soon as we try to distribute our literature they grab us and confiscate everything.”

The result, said Ruslan Simbinov, director of the party’s Astana branch, is an election with no choice.

He spent Sunday on the boycott, sitting in a car outside a polling place, recording voter entries and exits on a video camera.

“It’s the only way to keep them from voting twice,” he said.

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