Kazakhstan votes in snap parliamentary polls

Kazakhstan on Sunday voted in snap parliamentary elections that saw new faces on the ballot, but opposition parties still barred one year after deadly protests shook the Central Asian country.

Polling stations in the ex-Soviet country had closed with a turnout of 54.19 percent of the 12 million eligible voters, according to the Election Commission. The results are expected Monday morning.

A new system has been introduced for this election, with 69 deputies -– out of the 98 in the Majilis, the lower house of Parliament -– elected by proportional representation.

According to exit polls broadcast on state television, the ruling Amanat party is in the lead with 53 percent of the vote, and five to six parties are expected to enter parliament, compared to three currently.

The 29 deputies elected by the first-past-the-post system were not known on Sunday evening.

The huge, oil-rich nation is wedged between its former Soviet master Russia and China, which is gaining status in Central Asia as an economic powerhouse.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced the early vote as part of a "modernisation" drive introduced after protests against fuel prices erupted in January last year. They were brutally crushed and 238 people died, according to the official toll.

Tokayev, a former diplomat, was hand-picked in 2019 by his predecessor and mentor Nursultan Nazarbayev to take the helm after a nearly three-decade rule. But Tokayev purged the vestiges of that era after the demonstrations.

- 'Changing for the better' -

Both Tokayev and 82-year-old Nazarbayev were seen casting their vote on Sunday morning.

"As independent candidates are admitted, I think the electoral system is changing for the better," nurse Irina Reshetnik, 58, told AFP at a polling station in the capital Astana.

Ernest Serikov, an 81-year-old retired professor in Kazakhstan's largest city Almaty, said he supported the president and called the elections "experimental".

Independent candidates were allowed to run for parliament for the first time in nearly 20 years, the previous lower house having been made up of three pro-government parties.

The threshold to enter the 98-seat legislature has been lowered to five percent and a 30-percent quota was introduced for women, young people and people with disabilities.

In total, seven parties participated in this election, two of them recently registered. But several opposition parties and independent candidates were banned from running.

After polling stations closed, local media reported incidents of election observers prevented from overseeing the vote count while videos of alleged ballot box stuffing appeared on social media. AFP could not immediately confirm if the videos were authentic.

- 'Keep power' -

Tokayev, 69, promised to reform government institutions and in January dissolved parliament, saying early polls would "give new impetus to the modernisation".

"The electoral system has changed and gives the impression of choice," political scientist Dimash Alzhanov told AFP. "But in reality, the president and his administration are keeping the vote count in their hands.

"Here, elections are held in order to keep power. That's what elections are in an authoritarian country," he added.

After the riots that grew out of peaceful demonstrations against a fuel-price spike, Tokayev was re-elected in a snap presidential vote in November, securing a landslide win in an election criticised for lacking competition.

Inequality and corruption persist and soaring inflation is hurting the purchasing power of the population of nearly 20 million people.

In the economic hub Almaty, the campaign was in full swing ahead of the vote, with candidate posters on restaurant windows, scaffolding and street lamps.

Ambiguous slogans -- such as "Order is where the truth is" or "With me there is no mess" -- reflected candidates' lacklustre political platforms.

Some young voters in Almaty expressed scepticism over the changes.

"Will I take part in the elections? No, to be honest... because I hardly believe in fair elections in Kazakhstan in general," Aset Smagulov, a 21-year-old IT specialist, told AFP before the polls.

estimated that four or five parties will be presented in parliament following the election.

"Loyal parties will be present in parliament and Amanat," Almaty-based political analyst Andrei Chebotarev predicted before the vote.

"The presidential party will retain the majority of seats," he told AFP.

But, he added: "The diversity of parties will have an impact on the acceptance of the election results, both for the population and internationally."