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Change or more of the same? Kazakhstan's pivotal presidential election explained

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Change or more of the same? Kazakhstan's pivotal presidential election explained
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For nearly three decades presidential elections in Kazakhstan have only ever had one winner: Nursultan Nazarbayev.

But that will all change after this Sunday, on paper at least.

Nazarbayev, president since Kazakhstan became the last Soviet republic to declare independence from the USSR in 1991, stepped down in March.

He handpicked Kassym-Jomart Tokayev — a close party ally and speaker of the upper house of parliament — to step in as acting president.

In early April, Tokayev called a snap presidential election for June 9, sparking hope of a new democratic beginning for the country after years of authoritarian rule.

Yet despite the optimism, critics say the election is unlikely to be free or fair.

Human Rights Watch says "the transition has been carefully orchestrated and highly controlled".

What does this mean?

The election is going to be the biggest one to have ever taken place in the Central Asian country, nestled between Russia and China.

Eleven million voters are eligible to vote in the population of 18.6 million, including 1.5 million new voters who have turned 18 since the last presidential election in 2015.

This doesn't mean that the former president will be abandoning his central role in politics anytime soon: following a constitutional reform he orchestrated himself two years ago, the presidency's powers have actually been weakened in favour of a more important role for the National Security Council, that Nazarbayev still leads. He also still sits at the head of the ruling Nur Otan party.

Years of policies building up a personality cult around him mean that the First President now enjoys a constitutional right to life impunity and bank secrecy thanks to his role as “Yelbasy” – head of the nation – and that he is to be consulted on every important political decision. The name of the Kazakh capital itself was changed from Astana to Nur-Sultan in March 2019 in his honour.

In the light of Nazarbayev's privileged position, whoever comes next will most probably not have the same amount of power that the former president could count on.

Who cares? Neighbouring countries, investors...

With the highest GDP in Central Asia thanks to its prosperous oil and gas industries as well as its mineral resources, Kazakhstan is an important player in the region.

The country has been capitalising on its strategic position - at the crossroads between the Russian and Chinese markets, with strong Western ties and connections to Europe by road, rail and its port on the Caspian Sea - for years.

Yet, Russia's imposing presence in the region and Chinese policies that have seen 1 million Uighurs as well as many ethnic Kazakhs detained in Xinjiang mean that relations with its powerful neighbours are weakening.

In this delicate moment of transition, other autocrats in the region are observing Nazarbayev's every move, looking for a potential success story they could replicate when it's their turn to give up power.

From Belarus's Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, to Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev and Tajikistan's Emomali Rahmon, nobody wants to risk the fate of Armenia's long-ruling Serzh Sargsyan, whose party failed to win any seat in the December 2018 election after he stepped down. Vladimir Putin might be interested, since he too will have to draft a succession plan soon, as his term is set to end in 2024.

The political transition that the Sunday elections represent are also being watched closely by foreign businesses who have been investing on the country's energy and mining sectors since the 90s.

...and those asking for change

But the Kazakh people expect change, too. The country does not allow protests and has been reprimanded for years by international organisations for its handling of dissent, its censorship of traditional and social media alike and its disregard for freedom of assembly, speech, and religion.

Yet, since Nazarbayev announced he would be stepping down, hundreds of Kazakhs have been taking to the streets - a rare sight in a Muslim nation where social networks and online messengers are often shut down for hours on end. A number of small protests and calls for boycotts of the elections have seen many young people - born in a post-Soviet world, grown up with nobody but Nazarbayev in power - raise their voices, too. Repression has been swift, and it has included the detention of a 22-year-old man for holding a completely blank sign in the street.

Aside from its human rights record, other matters of complaint raised by the grassroots protests range from corruption to wage inequality, unemployment and poor social services. Since Kazakhstan has been branding itself as a "soft" authoritarian regime, the systematic repression of ongoing dissent would be a stain on its international reputation the government would have to consider as it works to join the 30 most developed countries worldwide by 2050.

Who is set to win?

Seven candidates are running for president and whoever triumphs will serve for a five-year term.

The absolute favourite to win is current interim president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a 66-year-old career diplomat. Educated in Moscow and an expert on China, he served as Minister of Foreign Affairs until January 2007, when he was elected as a Chairman of the Senate.

In the absence of any real challengers in a country where the same party has been ruling for 30 years, Tokayev did not even bother participating in television debates in the run-up to the election, telling Russian state television he had no doubt he would secure a five-year term.

The other people running are Jambyl Ahmetbekov and Dania Yespayeva, members of the national Parliament, journalist Amirjan Qosanov, Toleutai Rakhimbekov, Chairman of the Board of the National Agrarian Scientific and Educational Center, trade unionist Amangeldy Taspikhov and Vice President of the Association of National Sports of Kazakhstan Sadybek Tugel.

1,013 election observers are expected from 41 countries and 9 international organisations. A record number of foreign journalists, 227, from more than 40 countries have been accredited to cover the elections.

What do critics say?

"The prospect of a genuine transition is an illusion," said Human Rights Watch. "Given the short campaign period, restrictions on opposition activism and independent media, and the resources available to the leading party candidate, this election is unlikely to be different from past elections, which independent observers found to be neither free nor fair.

"Everything about this so-called transition has been carefully orchestrated and highly controlled – an approach the Kazakh authorities have long employed to regulate and restrict its citizens’ political and civil lives."