Kazakhstan’s ruling party is leading its national election, according to an exit poll.

On Sunday, Kazakhs voted for independent candidates in parliamentary elections, seen as a timid democratic opening in the authoritarian Central Asian country.

Voter turnout was around 54%, according to the Electoral Commission.

The results are expected on Monday.

According to an exit poll broadcast on state television, the ruling Amanat party leads with 53% of the vote, although some concerns have been raised about the validity of the election.

Five to six parties are expected to enter parliament, compared to three currently.

This election saw people vote for a new system, with 69 deputies – out of the 98 in the Majilis (Parliament) – now elected by proportional representation.

Candidates not affiliated with any party can run for the first time since 2004.

The threshold for entering the Majilis was lowered to 5% and a quota of 30% for women, youth and individuals with disabilities was also introduced.

These changes have introduced a measure of democracy into Kazakhstan’s political system, following deadly riots in January 2022 fueled by growing discontent with the government and endemic poverty.

238 people were killed in the crackdown on unrest, according to officials.

However, questions have been flagged about the authenticity of reforms, with several opposition parties and independent candidates banned.

“The electoral system has changed and gives the impression of freedom of choice. But in reality the president and his administration keep the vote count in their hands,” political scientist Dimach Aljanov told AFP.

“In an authoritarian country, elections are made to maintain power, not to replace it,” he continued.

Election observers have reportedly been barred from counting votes, plus videos of ballot boxes have emerged on social media.

Euronews cannot independently verify these claims.

The election is a result of an attempt to reform the constitution by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who took over in 2019.

The 69-year-old leader of the resource-rich country has shown a desire to “modernize” his country, a former Soviet republic that straddles Russia and China.

The corruption and yawning inequality – exacerbated by recent inflation – that fueled unrest in 2022 have not gone away.

“As independent candidates are being admitted, I think the electoral system is changing for the better,” said Irina Rechetnik, a nurse, while Ernest Serikov, an 81-year-old retired professor and supporter of the president, called the election “experimental”.