Ex-president's ally expected to win Kazakh vote amid protests

Police officers restraining and detaining protesters during a rally in Kazakhstan's largest city Almaty yesterday. Hundreds of people protested against the presidential election in Almaty and the capital Nur-Sultan, criticising it as undemocratic.
Police officers restraining and detaining protesters during a rally in Kazakhstan’s largest city Almaty yesterday. Hundreds of people protested against the presidential election in Almaty and the capital Nur-Sultan, criticising it as undemocratic. PHOTOS: REUTERS
An election campaign broadcast for Kazakhstan's interim president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in Almaty last week, ahead of yesterday's presidential election.
An election campaign broadcast for Kazakhstan’s interim president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in Almaty last week, ahead of yesterday’s presidential election.PHOTOS: REUTERS

ALMATY (Kazakhstan) • Mr Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the interim president of Kazakhstan handpicked by veteran leader Nursultan Nazarbayev as his successor, was expected to confirm his position yesterday in an election triggered by Mr Nazarbayev's resignation.

Mr Nazarbayev, who had run the oil-rich former Soviet republic for almost three decades before stepping down in March and still retains sweeping powers, chose the 66-year-old diplomat as his successor, making the outcome of the vote all but certain.

Hundreds of people protested yesterday, criticising the election as undemocratic. But the smooth transition is positive news for the country's neighbours Russia and China, as well as for foreign energy and mining companies which have invested hundreds of billions of dollars in the Central Asian state.

For many of its 12 million registered voters, Mr Tokayev, a former prime minister and foreign minister, was the only familiar face among seven candidates in a brief and uneventful campaign.

Ms Natalya, a pensioner, said after casting her ballot yesterday that she had voted for the incumbent. "Well, Nazarbayev is no longer on the ballot and I do not know any of the other candidates," she said.

Mr Nazarbayev, 78, who holds the official title of Yelbasy, or national leader, and continues to run the ruling Nur Otan party, has routinely taken more than 90 per cent of the vote in elections described by Western observers as neither free nor fair.

Kazakhstan's rubber-stamp Parliament, whose upper chamber was chaired by Mr Tokayev before he assumed the presidency, is devoid of opposition, and dissent is largely stifled through control of traditional and electronic media and social networks.

Facebook and Telegram - a popular mobile messaging app - were, for instance, inaccessible early yesterday in Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city.

Still, hundreds of people chanting "Shame!" staged protests in Almaty and Nur-Sultan, the capital that was named after Mr Nazarbayev on Mr Tokayev's suggestion.

Police clad in riot gear were seen detaining dozens of demonstrators in each of the two cities as policemen dispersed the rallies.

After casting his ballot in Nur-Sultan, Mr Tokayev said that he was urging both police and protesters to be tolerant and planned to include young activists critical of the government in a "special committee" to promote dialogue.

Mr Tokayev himself said he had no doubt that he would win the election, and promised to take guidance from Mr Nazarbayev on strategic matters.

Insiders say the men effectively share the presidential palace, although Mr Nazarbayev's new office is in a different building.

The arrangement under which Mr Nazarbayev effectively remains in charge ensures policy continuity - but also means political uncertainty will linger until he withdraws from politics.

Mr Tokayev appointed some new deputy ministers but eschewed major personnel or policy changes as interim leader.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 10, 2019, with the headline 'Ex-president's ally expected to win Kazakh vote amid protests'. Print Edition | Subscribe