Police in Kazakhstan arrested around 500 protesters on Sunday, the interior ministry said, as they demonstrated against a vote certain to confirm Nursultan Nazarbayev's hand-picked successor as president
"Around 500 people were delivered to police precincts in the cities of Nur-sultan and Almaty," said deputy interior minister Marat Kozhayev.His hand-picked successor Kassym Jomart-Tokayev is a expected to win the vote contested by six other candidates.
But the day was marked by the biggest protests the Central Asian country has seen in three years, as demonstrators urged a "boycott" of what they see as fixed polls.
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.
AFP correspondents in Kazakhstan's two main cities Nur-Sultan and Almaty witnessed hundreds of arrests Sunday.
Two AFP journalists were among those detained in the largest city Almaty, where police broke up a protest involving several hundred people.
Protesters shouted "shame, shame, shame!" and said "police come to the side of the people" before officers moved in on the crowd.
One AFP correspondent was taken to a police station before being released while another had video equipment confiscated by officers.
Journalists for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and an independent local news site were also arrested, as was a representative of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee rights NGO. They were all later released.
Dimash Alzhanov, a noted civic activist political analyst, was arrested and was still being held on Sunday evening.
Kazakhstan's deputy interior minister Marat Kozhayev however said that "around 100" protesters had been detained in Almaty and capital Nur-Sultan.
Four years ago Nazarbayev scored nearly 98 percent of a virtually uncontested vote where the official turnout was 95 percent.
No Kazakh vote has ever been recognised as fully democratic by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which sent more than 300 observers to monitor this election.
Career diplomat and interim president Tokayev, 66, is running for the ruling party with backing from authoritarian Nazarbayev, who stepped down from the presidency in March.
The 78-year-old strongman's departure shocked Kazakhs who had 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.
Tokayev's rivals in the polls included one low-key opposition figure, but none is widely known in Muslim-majority Kazakhstan.
As he voted, Tokayev told reporters in the capital that 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 ahead of the vote, Tokayev said Sunday that he called on law enforcement agencies "to exercise restraint."
"But any serious violations of our laws of course will not be tolerated," he added.
Marat Sagyndykov, a 65-year-old retired civil servant said he had voted for Tokayev "in order to continue the course of the Leader of the Nation", referring to 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," Sagyndykov told AFP.
Aslan Sagutdinov, a video blogger who was detained last month for holding up a blank placard at a protest, told AFP by email that he did not intend to vote.
"If you vote in unfair elections you are allowing them to say they are fair," said Sagutdinov, who lives in the northwestern town of Uralsk.
*This story was edited by Ahram Online