Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev looks set to extend his seven-year reign as president of Kazakhstan with an exit poll showing him winning a snap election in a landslide as expected on November 20.
Toqaev won 82.45% of the vote, according to the Open Society Institute poll show.
The first preliminary results are expected on November 21.
Although he presents himself as a reformer, Toqaev did not allow genuine opposition parties to register and take part in the elections.
Its five other candidates, including two women, were little-known personalities who are not considered real competitors.
The final turnout was set at 68.7% by the Central Election Commission.
Police detained a few dozen people who staged small-scale protests against the vote in Almaty, calling it illegal, according to opposition groups and local media. Police said some were quickly released, while others faced misdemeanor charges.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which sent a monitoring team to observe the vote, was to make its assessment on November 21.
Before the vote, the OSCE had criticized Kazakhstan’s failure to comply with electoral recommendations, including “candidate eligibility and registration requirements”.
Kazakh NGO Independent Observers said in many cases they faced restrictions trying to monitor the vote.
The November 20 elections came nearly three months after Kazakhstan replaced its system of limiting presidents to two consecutive five-year terms with a single seven-year term. The constitutional changes were proposed by Toqaev as part of his campaign to create what he calls “a new Kazakhstan”.
A presidential vote was initially scheduled for 2024 and legislative elections for 2025.
But in September, Toqaev called for snap presidential and parliamentary elections, saying a new term was needed to ‘maintain the momentum of reforms’ following a referendum in June that stripped ex-president Nursultan. Nazarbaev of his prestigious “elbasy” (head of the nation) status.
The referendum to change the constitution – which included the new presidential term limit – was touted by Toqaev as an important step in transforming Kazakhstan from a “super-presidential form of government to a presidential republic with a parliament strong”.
But critics say the overhaul has not changed the nature of authoritarian rule or removed any significant power held by the president’s office.
Toqaev continues to distance himself from his predecessor, Nazarbaev, who stepped down in 2019 after nearly three decades in power, naming his longtime ally Toqaev as his successor.
After voting in the capital, Astana, Nazarbaev told reporters that he voted for the person he had given power to, namely Toqaev.
“I already made my choice then, and the choice is final,” Nazarbaev said, adding that the county needed “unity” now.
Despite his resignation, Nazarbaev retained significant political power and influence as head of the Security Council, while his cronies continued to hold important positions in government and business structures.
But the situation changed dramatically following the deadly nationwide unrest in January, when protesters demanded an end to Nararbaev and his family’s grip on politics and the country’s wealth.
Toqaev subsequently removed Nazarbaev as head of the Security Council, taking charge of him himself. Several relatives and allies of Nazarbaev have been removed from their posts and some have been arrested and prosecuted for corruption.
In July, Toqaev’s government announced that it had recovered nearly $500 million in funds allegedly stolen by cronies of Nazarbaev.
In an apparent attempt to boost his popularity, Toqaev raised the minimum wage by 17%, raised pensions by 27% by 2025 and lowered the retirement age for women from 63 to 61. He announced the initiatives on September 1 in the same speech that he called for a snap election.
Toqaev said on November 20 that he would continue to “reset” the political system by calling early parliamentary elections next year.
Legislative elections are expected to take place next year. The current Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament, is dominated by the ruling party, Amanat, formerly known as Nur Otan.
Activists imprisoned, controlled
As the elections approach, several political activists have been arrested across the country.
On November 15, Almaty police arrested Aset Abishev, a member of the founding committee of the Algha Qazaqstan (Forward, Kazakhstan) party, who has been trying in vain for eight months to register for the elections. Authorities did not say why Abishev was arrested.
Last week, five other members of the unregistered party were arrested for taking part in an unauthorized rally in August.
On November 15, police in the southwestern city of Zhanaozen arrested prominent opposition activist Estai Qarashaev and sentenced him to six days in prison for violating the holding public gatherings. The sentencing means that Qarashaev will only be released one day after the elections.
Rights activist Serik Ydyryshev was arrested in his home village of Bobrovka, in the East Kazakhstan region, days before the elections. There was no immediate comment from authorities about his arrest. But Ydyryshev’s wife told RFE/RL that his detention was linked to the upcoming elections.
On November 14, Rashid Qamaldanov, an Almaty-based opposition activist, was sentenced to 15 days in prison for participating in an unauthorized rally earlier this year.
In the capital, Astana, imprisoned activist Sandughash Qantarbaeva began a hunger strike last weekend to protest her administrative arrest. Qantarbaeva said she was kept behind bars to prevent her from taking part in the election day protests.
Many activists complained to RFE/RL that the police were monitoring their homes and their movements in the run-up to the elections.
Contacted by RFE/RL, an Interior Ministry official denied that the police took any action to prevent the activists from organizing rallies.