Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 June 2019

Hundreds arrested as Kazakhs vote for first new leader in decades

Interim president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is expected to win nearly 73 per cent of the vote

Former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaye casts his ballot at a polling station during the presidential elections in Nur-Sultan, the capital city of Kazakhstan on Sunday, June 9, 2019. AP
Former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaye casts his ballot at a polling station during the presidential elections in Nur-Sultan, the capital city of Kazakhstan on Sunday, June 9, 2019. AP

Police in Kazakhstan arrested hundreds of protesters on Sunday as they demonstrated against a vote certain to confirm former president Nursultan Nazarbayev's hand-picked successor.

"Around 500 people were delivered to police precincts in the cities of Nur-sultan and Almaty," said deputy interior minister Marat Kozhayev.

Kazakhs went to the polls to elect their first new leader in 30 years after Mr Nazarbayev stepped down from the presidency in March. He appointed career diplomat Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, 66, as interim president and is backing him as the candidate for the ruling party.

But Mr Nazarbayev's foreign-based political nemesis, fugitive banker Mukhtar Ablyazov had called for protests in cities across the nation on Sunday and Monday.

Mr Tokayev has six rivals in the election including one low-key opposition figure, but none are widely known in Muslim-majority Kazakhstan.

By contrast, Mr Tokayev has won endorsements from pop stars and film actors and appears to have the weight of the state machine behind him.

The departure of Mr Nazarbayev, 78, shocked Kazakhs who 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.

After voting at the lavish state opera house in the capital Nur-Sultan, Mr Tokayev spoke in English with reporters and acknowledged that Mr Nazarbayev "was still in power in the capacity of chairman of the security council... and other capacities".

Responding to concerns about police crackdowns on protests before the vote, Mr Tokayev pledged his administration would be "building up a dialogue with all those who support the government and those who are against the government".

Marat Sagyndykov, a retired 65-year-old former civil servant in the largest city Almaty said he had voted for Mr Tokayev "in order to continue the course of the Leader of the Nation", referring to Mr Nazarbayev's constitutionally designated status.

"I think in 30 years we have had some successes. There have been negatives, too, but they exist in all countries," he said.

Speculating on the outcome of the tightly-controlled vote, Mr Tokayev's campaign chief told journalists Friday that he predicted victory but without the overwhelming backing enjoyed by Mr Nazarbayev.

"I think Tokayev will receive the support of the majority of the population, but to aspire to the figures that Nursultan Nazarbayev received would be inappropriate," said campaign chief Maulen Ashimbayev in comments reported by Russian news agency Interfax.

One of the two Kazakh polling agencies permitted by authorities to operate in the run-up to the vote found Mr Tokayev would win nearly 73 per cent of the vote.

Four years ago Mr Nazarbayev scored nearly 98 per cent of a virtually uncontested vote where the official turnout was 95 per cent.

No Kazakh vote has ever been recognised as fully democratic by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has sent more than 300 observers to monitor this election.

Ivan Sedov, a 42-year-old entrepreneur from Almaty said he had voted for Daniya Yespayeva, 58, the only woman on the ballot "in the spirit of protest".

"I don't support this power transition. I think it has been rushed through. There aren't any (real) candidates to choose from," Mr Sedov told AFP.

There is only one openly opposition candidate in the race, journalist Amirzhan Kosanov, who has a track record of criticising the government.

However, he has come under fire for a lacklustre and tepid campaign where he has vaguely criticised the system, rather than attacking either Mr Tokayev or his predecessor directly.

The build-up to the vote was marked by an intensifying crackdown on the opposition with courts sentencing protesters to short stays in jail and police raiding activists' homes.

Human Rights Watch called the prospect of a genuine political transition "an illusion" and noted the persistence of rights abuses under Mr Tokayev's presidency.

"Kazakh authorities routinely break up peaceful protests, forcibly round up participants – sometimes literally binding their hands and feet – and sanction them with warnings, fines, and short-term imprisonment," the watchdog said.

Mr Nazarbayev's foreign-based political nemesis, fugitive banker Mukhtar Ablyazov, called for protests in cities across the country on Sunday and Monday.

Updated: June 9, 2019 08:12 PM

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