Mon. Nov 21st, 2022

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev cruised to a landslide victory in Sunday’s snap election, according to exit polls, consolidating his hold on power less than a year after ousting his longtime predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev.

The former diplomat, who came to power in 2019 as Nazarbayev’s hand-picked successor when the Central Asian nation’s sole ruler since the Soviet era stepped down, broke with his former patron after a rebellion in January that Tokayev called an attempted coup.

Another election victory – polls showed him winning between 82% and 85% of the vote – would give Tokayev, 69, the kind of overwhelming personal mandate that Nazarbayev has routinely secured as he built a cult of personality over five consecutive terms.

Nazarbayev, who held important positions after leaving power, relinquished them during the uprising earlier this year in which 238 people died. Tokayev has since forced Nazarbayev’s allies to give up other positions and changed the name of the capital – renamed “Nur-Sultan” in Nazarbayev’s honor – back to Astana.

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Tokayev called on Russia for help to quell the January unrest, but has since kept aloof from Moscow, avoiding public support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Russia is Kazakhstan’s biggest trading partner, and Russia’s slide into recession has hurt its neighbors’ economies, while the ruble’s strength RUB=, fueled by capital controls, has helped push inflation in Kazakhstan to its highest level in 14 years.

Tokayev, a former foreign minister and deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, oversaw constitutional reforms that limit his power to two terms. He also promised to reduce income inequality by rooting out corruption and redistributing wealth more fairly in the country of 19 million people.

Presidential elections were originally scheduled for late 2024, but were pushed back after unrest in January and a constitutional referendum that followed. Tokaev said on Sunday that he would continue to “reset” the political system by calling early parliamentary elections next year. Tokayev left the ruling Amanat party this year and has overseen reforms that make it easier to establish new political parties.

Opinion polls had predicted that none of the other five candidates would reach double digits in Sunday’s vote.

“Among those running for president, I only know Tokayev at first,” said Timerlan Sadykov, a resident of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, ahead of the vote.

“And secondly, the way he behaved on the international stage was very attractive.”

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Another voter from Almaty, a 35-year-old manager who gave only his first name, Serik, said he voted against all the candidates.

“.. I think the powerful must realize that they did not give us a real choice,” he said.

Police detained several dozen people in Almaty who staged smaller protests against the election, calling it illegal, according to opposition groups and local media. The police announced that some were soon released, while others faced misdemeanor charges.

By the time polling stations across Kazakhstan closed at 9 p.m. local time, 69.4 percent of voters had cast their ballots, the Central Election Commission announced. Preliminary voting results are expected on Monday.

(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov and Mariya Gordeyeva Additional reporting by Tamara Vall in Astana Editing by Peter Graff, Frances Kerry, Alexander Smith and Paul Simao)