Presidential elections in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is electing a president Sunday amid little doubt that longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbayev will win, and dark speculation about what will happen thereafter. In recent weeks Kazakh authorities have repeatedly accused the pro-democracy opposition of planning demonstrations modeled on the protests that drove President Askar Akayev of neighboring Kyrgyzstan out of the country in March.

Last week Kazakhstan closed its border with Kyrgyzstan, either fearing an influx of troublemakers or trying to create the impression that an uprising was being plotted. Nazarbayev's main challenger, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, leaves the question open. He maintains the opposition won't mount any demonstrations that violate Kazakhstan's restrictive laws, but tells reporters that "if authorities provoke a standoff with people, civil unrest, we will stand by the people."

Kazakhstan, four times the size of Texas, has vast oil and gas reserves that are a potential alternative to Middle East petroleum, and its stability matters greatly to the United States and Western Europe. The country also borders both Russia and China. Kazakhstan's economy has grown by some 75 percent over the last seven years, and per capita gross national income is about US$2,250, about five times higher than neighboring Uzbekistan's. Rival Tuyakbai promises to curb corruption, make democratic reforms, reduce poverty distribute energy revenues more fairly. But opinion polls predict Nazarbayev will win a new seven-year term with 60-70 percent of the vote against four challengers. Kazakhstan's comparative prosperity is his strong suit, while dissatisfaction with him is rooted in the Kazakhstan's inhibited political climate, and in allegations that he and his family have enriched themselves at the country's expense. His two previous election victories were widely criticized as undemocratic.

Opposition candidates complain that they can't rent billboards, that their campaign materials have been stolen and that press runs of newspapers supporting them have been seized. Astana, the capital perched on Kazakhstan's snowy steppes, has few posters of opposition candidates, but huge banners extolling Nazarbayev abound. One calls him "The best president in the world", reports the AP. N.U.

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