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Kazakhstan set to vote amid Western concern

Kazakhstan's president is set to lead for another decade

AFP , Saturday 2 Apr 2011
Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev in Astana, in this Monday, 5 December 2005 file photo. (AP)
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Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is set to be elected to a third decade in power Sunday in largely ceremonial polls that have sparked Western concern about the expected ease of his victory.

The 70-year-old leader -- a man who built his own capital and now enjoys full command -- has never won a poll deemed as fair since first rising to head the republic in its Soviet era in 1989.

The former steelworker officially faces three minor challengers but even his aides say the man officially known as the "leader of the nation" should do better than the 91 percent he picked up in 2005.

Western governments have condemned previous elections and foreign observers will give a report Monday that is expected to highlight the uncompetitive nature of the vote.

"Members of parliament are hopeful that Kazakhstan will show marked progress with this election and do the work needed to live up to its international commitments," OSCE Parliamentary Assembly observer team spokesman Neil Simon told AFP.

Nazarbayev's team has heard the criticism before and Kazakh officials insist they are willing to move to a more flexible political system in which the president plays a more low key role.

"Checks and balances, this is a very important step," Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov told AFP. "And for sustainable development in the future, checks and balances -- including of the political system -- are needed."

One suggestion would see Kazakhstan -- with no clear successor to the president in place -- becoming a parliamentary republic reminiscent of a European state.

The idea would still keep the same class of politicians in charge for now. All members of the legislature belong to the Nur Otan ruling party while the heads of courts and other agencies are appointed by the president's men.

But his advisers said Nazarbayev was backing election reforms aimed at cracking the ruling party's stranglehold on parliament and introducing an open system that can win the country more respect in the West.

"The role of parliament has been steadily growing in our society," presidential aide Nurlan Yermekbayev told AFP.

"You have to understand Nazarbayev's unique role in Kazakh society. He is our first and only president," Yermekbayev said. "The next leader will not be the same."

Such promises have been dismissed as either too vague or unconvincing by opposition leaders who are boycotting the elections en masse.

"We have not had fair elections in 20 years," said former Senate member and current human rights leader Zauresh Battalova. "We are hoping that the next elections will be different. But all we can really do is hope and fight."

This scepticism stems from concerns about Nazarbayev's political instincts.

Kazakhstan was on course to hold a referendum extending the president's rule through 2020 until the plan raised public worry in the United States.

A critical statement from the US embassy in Astana -- which was issued amid the social revolutions sweeping veteran leader from power in the Arab world -- was soon followed by a January court decision proclaiming the measure illegal.

The Kazakh prime minister said the timing was nothing more than a coincidence.

"I am absolutely confident that the decision (to drop the referendum) had nothing to do with any criticism or with any decision from the outside," Massimov said.

"President Nazarbayev ... has made a very strong decision for himself and got the support of the population to move toward a Western-style democracy."

But then he added: "You can't do it right away. It takes time."

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