President Nursultan Nazarbayev re-elected in Kazakh presidential vote¤

President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled oil-rich Kazakhstan since Soviet times, was re-elected by an overwhelming majority according to preliminary results released Monday that the opposition said should be declared invalid. The Central Elections Commission said Nazarbayev had won 91 percent of the votes in Sunday's election, according to the count completed early Monday. His closest challenger, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, received 6.64 percent, while Alikhan Baimenov came in third with 1.65 percent. Seventy-seven percent of registered voters cast ballots, the commission said.

Tuyakbai, speaking at a news conference in Almaty, called the vote "the height of unfairness and injustice." "We will take all necessary measures to appeal the results released by the Central Election Commission and declare the vote illegitimate," he said. "We reserve the right to stage public protests, but we take into consideration the possible response from the authorities and we don't want innocent blood being spilled."

Nazarbayev told about 10,000 flag-waving students gathered in an Astana sports center that his election was a victory for the country, for all Kazakhs. "The people have positively evaluated my 14 years of rule since Kazakhstan won independence." He pledged to use his seven-year term to double salaries and pensions.

"In seven years, the country's economy will double and we will be on the level of Eastern European countries in terms of per capita income," Nazarbayev said. He later told reporters that Kazakhs had thrown their support behind "peace and development."

"It's not about revolution but evolution," he said, contrasting Kazakhstan's vote to the election-sparked uprisings that have swept away long-standing leaders in the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. "No revolution has solved people's immediate needs, but instead has thrown them backward."

Three exit polls announced earlier Monday had given Nazarbayev more than 80 percent of the vote. The Washington-based International Republican Institute announced another poll later Monday showing that Nazarbayev had won 83.2 percent to Tuyakbai's 9.9 percent. That poll surveyed 23,780 people at 283 polling stations throughout the country.

The exit polls suggested that Nazarbayev had won a less overwhelming victory than the official results indicated, and the opposition was taken aback by the election commission's announcement.

Tuyakbai said if the count had been fair, he and Nazarbayev would have gone into a second round, but he didn't give any figures. He also said that authorities had given his followers copies of only one-fifth of the protocols drawn up by local election commissions.

The assessment of international election observers likely will play a key role in how the opposition responds to the elections. A mission led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was due to issue its initial assessment of the vote later Monday. A group of observers from the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States said the balloting was "free and open."

Nazarbayev, who has ruled for 16 years, often shows an authoritarian streak, and opposition candidates claim their campaigns were hindered by the theft of campaign materials, seizure of newspapers backing them and denial of attractive sites to hold rallies. Nazarbayev's two previous election victories were widely criticized as undemocratic. Bolat Abilov, campaign chief for Tuyakbai, said late Sunday that Tuyakbai observers saw many violations, including people being excluded from voter lists and some voters being ordered to cast ballots for Nazarbayev.

Kazakhstan, the world's ninth-largest country by area, 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 borders both Russia and China.

Under Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan has maneuvered between Washington, Moscow and Beijing. With Russia and China, it is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that has called for U.S. bases in the region to be closed. At the same time, a small Kazakh contingent is part of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, reports the AP. I.L.

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