ASTANA (AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE) - Citizens of energy-rich Kazakhstan went to the polls Sunday (Mar 20) in an early parliamentary election expected to provide a commanding majority for ageing autocrat President Nursultan Nazarbayev's ruling Nur Otan party.
Close to 10 million voters are eligible to cast votes in a ballot held early amid economic gloom in the Central Asian state and featuring six parties that mostly support the country's Russia-aligned leader.
Nazarbayev, 75, has ruled Kazakhstan virtually unopposed since before its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and has not named a successor. Over 9,800 polling stations in the vast landlocked republic of 17 million people had opened by 0200 GMT (10 am Singapore), with voting across the country expected to conclude by 1500 GMT (11 pm Singapore).
Analysts say the parties competing in the vote lack coherent ideologies or manifestos, and exist to provide democratic window dressing in the authoritarian state rocked by low oil prices.
"These are zombie parties. They take up space and make announcements, but principally do not have any particular sort of platform," said Dosym Satpayev, Director of the Risk Assessment Group based in the country's largest city Almaty.
In addition to Nur Otan, two other parties from the outgoing legislature are competing, the pro-government Communist People's Party and Ak Zhol. Of the three remaining parties, both Auyl, which focuses on agrarian issues, and pro-green Birlik are loyal to Nazarbayev, while the Nationwide Social Democratic Party (NSDP) claims the mantle of the opposition.
Standing in line to vote in the futuristic capital Astana, Maral Akimbaeva, 27, a worker for a state company said she would "probably" vote for Nur Otan.
"If I am honest I don't see any difference between the parties. They all say the same thing," she said.
Bolat Karabayev, a private entrepreneur, said he would not be voting.
"I am disappointed by these parliamentarians. I don't think they can solve our problems. Policy is made by the president's office at any rate," he said.
Exit polls are expected to show projected results shortly after midnight local time (2 am Singapore, Mar 21).
Kazakh electoral law determines at least two parties must take their places in the 107-member legislature, even if one of them does not surpass the 7 per cent vote threshold.
Nazarbayev was re-elected to a five year term with 98 per cent of the vote in a snap presidential election last year.
Kazakhstan forged ahead as depressed Central Asia's most prosperous state with sky-high oil revenues powering over a decade of robust economic growth after the turn of the millenium.
But the collapse in global crude prices has triggered job cuts in key sectors and destroyed confidence in the battered tenge currency, while some forecasters are predicting the economy will shrink this year.
In a bleak environment the ruling party's campaign has emphasised past government achievements while endorsing present state policies under the motto "Unity! Stability! Creativity!"
"During the years of independence, the population's real incomes have increased by three-and-a-half times, poverty has decreased by 14 times," boasted the party's Vice-Chairman Askar Myrzakhmetov at a pre-electoral debate broadcast on state television last Wednesday.
The conclusion of the vote will re-focus attention on the ruling circle surrounding Nazarbayev, who has not confirmed he will stand for re-election when his term ends in 2020. One possible contender to eventually replace him is his 52-year-old daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, who is currently Deputy Prime Minister. In the meantime, his critics doubt potential for real reform and say the system he has created has left little in the way of viable alternatives to his rule.
"Discontent is growing, but it is not clear whether it will channel into any collective action of substance," said Nargis Kassenova, director of the Central Asian Studies Center at the KIMEP University in Almaty.
"I see no forces in the country that can mobilise people and promote their interests, the political space has been purged."