Kazakh strongman set for poll win
Astana - Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev was set on Sunday to stretch his rule into a third decade by scoring a crushing poll win, but the possible win had raised alarm over democracy in the energy-rich state.
The authenticity of the vote was thrown into further doubt after an admission by one of the three little-known challengers that he eventually decided to cast his ballot for Nazarbayev as a sign of "respect".
The usually soft-spoken Nazarbayev unexpectedly answered his critics when voting by telling a nationally-televised live broadcast that the government remained committed to transparency and democratic standards.
Western embassies in Astana are eyeing the vote with keen interest after social revolutions swept veteran leaders from power in other Muslim nations but Kazakh officials insist there is no parallel with their president.
An entire generation of Kazakhs grew up with the 70-year-old Nazarbayev as their leader and the former steelworker was greeted with respectful applause as he approached his ballot box with his wife.
He said: "All the presidential candidates had an equal opportunity to visit all the regions of our country.
"They had equal access to the media.
"They expressed their ideas, their thoughts to the Kazakh people."
Opposition leaders have boycotted the snap polls and argued that the three men facing Nazarbayev have been placed in the field by the government to make the vote look legitimate.
And those suspicions appeared to be confirmed by news that one of the challengers - an environmentalist named Mels Yeleusizov -- said he "expressed my respect for the winner" by voting for Nazarbayev.
Despite opposition calls for a boycott, the official turnout had reached 84% two hours before the close of polls - a massive figure that will dwarf the last election's turnout total of 77%.
Kazakhstan has come under fire for instituting effective one-party rule in which all political and economic decisions are made by Nazarbayev and his hand-picked ministers and assistants.
But this closed system has pursued a decade of business-friendly policies that have ensured 8.5% annual growth and a dramatic improvement in the lives the 16.4 million people living across the vast country's steppes.