Kazakhstan Prepares to Hold Presidential Elections

Voters in Kazakhstan head to the polls Sunday, to elect the oil-rich nation's next president to a seven-year term. Incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbayev is favored to win the vote against the main opposition challenger, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev's ruling party, Otan, boasts nearly half-a-million members and secured more than 50 percent of the seats in last year's parliament elections. If current polls prove accurate, Mr. Nazarbayev - who has ruled Kazakhstan since the country gained independence in 1991 - will be re-elected easily to a new seven-year term.

But what will that mean for the people of Kazakhstan? VOA put that question to Yevgeni Volk, the head of the Moscow office for the Washington-based Heritage Foundation think tank. Mr. Volk says the result will likely be a mix between relative stability and stagnation.

"(President) Nazarbayev is not interested in changing the situation in introducing some new kind of reforms. He's not so much open toward western-style democracy. He's not interested in developing civil society in the country," he noted. "So, I believe that there will be some kind of combination between relatively-free market economy which could be very attractive to investors and a tough political situation, whereby the opposition would have a very limited voice, very limited impact inside the country."

Kazakhstan's political opposition - which has only one deputy in parliament - has regularly come under investigation by law enforcement agencies and has been subject to pressure from the authorities. In the course of the pre-election campaign, opposition groups have complained of the beating and detention of activists, the seizure of opposition newspapers and a lack of media access.

In an effort to try and mount a serious challenge, the opposition united behind one single

candidate - Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, who quit his post and the ruling party last October to protest legislative elections he described as a farce.

Mr. Tuyakbai has said protests are possible, if international election observers declare the December presidential vote as flawed.

President Nazarbayev has ruled out the possibility of a Ukraine or Georgia-style revolution taking place in his country, saying Kazakhstan is not ready for Western-style democracy. Analyst Volk agrees; but only because the country's political opposition is still too weak, in his view, to mount any real challenge to the authorities.

"Unlike Ukraine or Georgia, I don't believe the opposition in Kazakhstan is sufficiently strong to organize such big manifestations or demonstrations, which could lead to a kind of orange or other-colored revolution," he said. "Of course, there will be certainly some kind of lack of openness or transparency and I believe the observers from western democratic institutions won't be very happy with the electoral procedures in Kazakhstan. But I don't believe they could lead to a great protest inside the country which could really undermine (Mr.) Nazarbayev's authority."

President Nazarbayev has a lot riding on this election, having promised it will be free and fair - standards never met during any previous election in Kazakhstan.

President Bush, in a recent letter to Mr. Nazarbayev, urged him to ensure that the country's economic reforms are backed up by bold democratic reforms. Mr. Bush also called on the Kazakh president to ensure that the vote is free and fair.

Officials with the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have made it clear that December's elections must be declared valid, if Kazakhstan hopes to have its bid to chair the rotating presidency of the OSCE in 2009 considered seriously.

But a dark cloud was cast just weeks before the election, when a former top official in the

Nazarbayev government, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, who recently changed his allegiance to opposition leader Tuyakbai, was found shot dead in his home in Almaty. Officials are investigating a number of possibilities, including murder and suicide.