ASTANA, Kazakhstan — In a nation where the president won his last election with 96 percent of the vote, not even Kazakhstan’s pro-government media bothered to cover the campaign this time around.
“We know the result. It’s not interesting for people,” said Lev Tarakov, the editor of the Vremya newspaper, ahead of Sunday’s vote, which was set to reelect President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the only leader independent Kazakhstan has ever known.
“He’ll win 95 to 96 percent. And it will be real,” said Tarakov, who was once Nazarbayev’s spokesman. Tarakov’s newspaper devoted only scant coverage to the reelection of the man who built a shining new capital city on the steppe around a tower where Kazakhstan’s citizens can place their hands in a brass relief of the president’s handprint for good luck.
Citizens in this vast Central Asian nation turned out in droves Sunday to cast their votes for the steelworker turned strongman who has led Kazakhstan since its 1991 independence from the Soviet Union. Exit polls released early Monday suggested that Tarakov may have been off base — they showed Nazarbayev winning 97.5 percent of the vote. Although the choice was for stability, stark challenges face this nation trapped between two huge neighbors, Russia and China.
Plummeting oil prices threaten to throw Kazakhstan’s resource-dependent economy into a tailspin. Religious extremism is on the rise in the majority-Muslim nation. And ethnic differences papered over by the aging president may break open after he leaves the scene, analysts say.
Nazarbayev, 74, was running against two largely unknown candidates, one a hard-line communist and the other a former cabinet member in his own government. Neither opponent was visible on the campaign trail. Even as Nazarbayev called snap presidential elections a year ahead of schedule, he hinted that he is thinking about stepping aside soon. But he has squelched all possible successors — and ordered researchers to unlock the secret of extending human life.
Now Kazakhstan faces the tricky question of what comes next.
“Nazarbayev can’t give power to another Nazarbayev. He’s the only one. For 25 years he has cut down all his opponents. He doesn’t have an exit strategy,” said Amangeldy Shormanbayev, a human rights advocate and lawyer.
Voters interviewed Sunday said they opted for Nazarbayev because they fear a future without him. The election was less a choice among candidates and more a societal affirmation of support for a leader who is genuinely popular, they said — not least because Nazarbayev has eliminated any opponent charismatic enough to challenge him. Some who dared to do so are in jail. Others are in exile or dead.
“I don’t know anyone else,” said Miras Mukhamedrakhimov, 26, an intercom installer who voted Sunday at a polling station where Nazarbayev’s image was embroidered on a carpet in the entrance hall. Inside the balloting room, Nazarbayev was featured twice in a single oil painting. “First of all, we don’t want the same situation as in Ukraine,” the intercom installer said. “It’s for stability.”
Outside the voting center, an exit pollster cheerfully asked people who they had voted for. All said Nazarbayev. One elderly woman wished the polling station boss a “happy holiday.”
“People are used to voting for one president. They’ve done this for 20 years,” said Mariya Lobacheva, the program director at Echo, an independent civic organization in Almaty, the former capital. “The next people are invisible. They’re like Putin when [Boris] Yeltsin was president,” she said, referring to the sudden political transition in Russia in 1999, when President Vladimir Putin rose to the top despite being unknown to most Russians.
Nazarbayev, a Soviet apparatchik, has forged a relatively prosperous, stable state in a region where its neighbors have been far less successful. The economy is more than 12 times the size it was in 2000, better than other Central Asian nations, both those more repressive and those more politically open than Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev managed to stitch together his country’s fractious ethnic groups and voluntarily surrendered its nuclear arsenal in the 1990s.
“I am sure that the people of Kazakhstan will vote first and foremost for the stable development of our country,” Nazarbayev said Sunday as he voted in the center of Astana.
But beneath the outward calm, unpredictable currents can flow, as was the case in 2011 when authorities killed at least 17 striking oil workers during labor unrest in western Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev called the early elections in part because he was seeking a renewed mandate ahead of expected economic troubles in the next several years, his advisers say. He has also had to fend off fears that Kazakhstan could be the next target for Russian expansion after Ukraine.
“Some elites actually advised him to avoid elections, to have a referendum instead, for example,” said Erlan Karin, the head of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies and the former director of Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan political party.
At a state-sponsored assembly of ethnic groups that held a session last week, one person after another lined up to praise Nazarbayev, who beamed from centerstage.
“Eight million women in Kazakhstan love you,” one woman told the president, doing the math by splitting the nation’s population in two. “We know you have a big heart.”
Nazarbayev has spoken of a need to make economic reforms that would move the country away from its dependence on mineral resources and cut down on endemic corruption. Democratic reforms eventually would follow, he has said.
“Our plan is to gradually see the move of the country from a strong political presidential rule to a combination of president and parliamentary rule,” said Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov. But he said those looking for “Jeffersonian democracy” would be disappointed.
For now, most voters on Sunday seemed content to hold on to what they’ve got.
“His soul is young,” said Dana Jaxylykova, an accounting student at Eurasian National University in Astana, who, at 19, is about a quarter Nazarbayev’s age. “Age is just numbers,” she said.