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Kazakhstan votes to elect new parliament



KAZAKHSTAN on Sunday voted in parliamentary polls set to preserve the dominance of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s ruling party, just a month after deadly riots shattered its reputation for stability.

The vote is designed to breathe new life into a system under which Nazarbayev, 71, put economic prosperity before political freedoms during over two decades of strongman rule that started even before the USSR’s collapse.

“I am sure that the Kazakh people will make the right choice for their future, for the country’s development, for calm in our common country,” Nazarbayev said after casting his ballot, describing the poll as a ‘big test.’ Kazakhstan’s reputation for predictable stability was exploded in December when 16 people were killed in clashes between striking oil workers and security forces, in its worst bloodshed since the Soviet Union’s fall.

As well as the riots, the country has also been shaken by a outburst of unrest blamed on Islamist militants, something until now virtually unknown in the majority Muslim but vehemently secular state.

With all the state apparatus in its favour, Nazabayev’s Nur Otan party is certain to keep its domination of parliament but new election rules means it is guaranteed there will be at least one party in nominal opposition.

Polls closed at 1500 GMT after voting across the two time zones of the world’s ninth largest country. Exit polls are awaited from 1800 GMT with initial results from Monday.

The central election commission said turnout at 1200 GMT was over 71 percent, already higher than the 64.6 recorded in the last parliamentary polls in 2007.

Six parties are challenging Nur Otan (Light of the Fatherland) under new rules in which the second-place finisher will for the first time collect seats even if it wins less than the seven-percent threshold.

A study by the Institute for Social-Political Research said Nur Otan should take more than 80 percent of the vote — only just off the 88 percent it garnered in the last parliamentary ballot in 2007.

Its nearest challenger on around seven percent should be the Ak Zhol (Bright Path) party — a state-crafted business lobby that steers well clear of criticising the president.

The more clearly anti-government All-National Social Democratic Party (OSDP) — expected to come in third — pledged to lead street protests if the authorities rigged the vote. Two of its leaders have been struck from the ballot on technical grounds.

“If they lie to us this time, steal people’s votes, we’ll take to the streets,” OSDP party chairman Zharmakhan Tuyakbai told supporters at an election rally.

The opposition and international observers condemned the conduct of April 2011 presidential election that saw Nazarbayev win more than 95 percent of the vote in a poll where even one of his rivals voted for the Kazakh strongman.

Yet Nazarbayev appears to enjoy genuine respect among Kazakhs who are taught to refer to their leader as ‘Papa’ in school and a colourful array of prominent candidates heads his party’s election list.

They include the president’s eldest daughter Dariga and the cycling star Alexander Vinokourov.

“I think that we should be raising parliament’s status,” Dariga Nazarbayeva said in comments reflecting recent efforts to gradually ease the president’s powers ahead of an an eventual transition.

Nazarbayev had ordered the polls to go ahead as planned in the Caspian Sea city of Zhanaozen where the riots took place, after the authorities initially cancelled them owing to the state of emergency that is still in force.

The president has already responded to the unrest by sensationally sacking top energy executives as well as his own son-in-law and onetime possible successor Timur Kulibayev as head of the mammoth state holding firm.

Police were investigating an election-day fire in the country’s main mosque in Astana that killed one person which initial reports said had been sparked during construction works.

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