Oil-rich Kazakhstan, the most prosperous country in ex-Soviet Central Asia, voted Sunday in a presidential election widely expected to give Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has led the country for the last 16 years, another seven-year term.
Amid allegations of official and opposition misdeeds, Nazarbayev is so confident of victory over his four challengers that he has scheduled a gathering with supporters at a sports complex in the capital Astana on Monday morning, just minutes after election officials plan to announce preliminary results.
A pre-election opinion poll by the U.S.-based Intermedia Survey Institute reported that Nazarbayev had 71 percent support. But it noted in a statement that the responses "may reflect some wariness by respondents to express their true attitudes."
Opposition candidates claim their campaigns have been hindered by the theft of campaign materials and the seizure of newspapers supporting them.
Nazarbayev's two previous election victories were widely criticized as undemocratic. After voting on Sunday in the capital, Astana, he said, "this year's elections are being held in unprecedented democratic conditions."
The ITAR-Tass news agency later reported that Valdimir Rushailo, head of the monitoring mission of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which includes most ex-Soviet countries, said observers had noted some violations at the station where Nazarbayev voted, including one person casting two ballots.
But Vladimir Petikhin, head of the Russian CIS observers's contingent, said his colleagues had not recorded serious problems and "we can say the election took place practically without violations." As of 6 p.m., two hours before most of the country's polls closed, turnout was 68 percent, the Central Elections Commission said.
Bolat Abitov, campaign head for main challenger Zhamakhan Tuyakai, said late Sunday that observers from that campaign had seen many violations, including some voters reportedly under orders from officials or employers to vote for Nazarbayev.
The assessment of international election observers is likely to play a key role in how the opposition responds.
The observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose conclusions are widely regarded in the West as definitive, is to issue a preliminary report Monday afternoon.
Kazakh officials have claimed the opposition plans postelection disturbances similar to the protests in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan over the past two years that helped bring opposition figures to power.
Tuyakbai, after voting in Almaty, the country's commercial capital, said that if there is evidence of election fraud, he and his supporters "will use all legal means to resist."
In pre-election assessments, the OSCE mission said opposition candidates' restricted access to media coverage was a potential hindrance to a fully democratic election. It has also expressed concern about the electronic voting system offered as an option to paper ballots in about 15 percent of precincts.
Nazarbayev, who has led the nation of 15 million since 1989 when it was still part of the Soviet Union, is widely esteemed for his economic reforms, in contrast to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, also led by Soviet-era presidents. Kazakhstan's economy has grown by some 75 percent over the past 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, and distribute energy revenues more fairly, reported AP. P.T.