Voters headed to polling stations in large numbers Sunday in the oil-rich Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan in elections that look to have slightly broadened democratic representation in parliament's rubber-stamp lower house.
The high turnout, which reached 75 percent, is perhaps more an outcome of habit than hope, however, since the legislature will likely only undergo cosmetic changes.
An exit poll by Kazakh think tank Institute of Democracy published late Sunday showed three parties possibly entering parliament. According to data compiled from a survey of around 50,000 voters across the whole country, President Nursultan Nazarbayev's Nur Otan party easily pushed aside its competition with 81 percent of the vote.
All the seats up for grabs in the 2007 election in the former Soviet nation's parliament were won by Nur Otan. A 2009 election law ensured at least two parties would enter the 107-member chamber, by automatically granting seats to the party with the second-highest number of votes even if it did not receive the 7 percent share that is the threshold for proportional allotment of seats.
Nine deputies will be nominated Monday by a presidential advisory body that represents the country's many ethnic communities.
Opposition parties that were most likely to pose a robust challenge to Nur Otan have been either disqualified from competing or rendered largely powerless.
Institute of Democracy said its survey showed the pro-business Ak Zhol party, which avoids confrontation with the government, and the People's Communist Party of Kazakhstan claiming 7.3 percent. Two other exit polls pointed to a similar outcome.
Another, more combative, Communist party with a higher public profile was suspended for six months in October after a court found that it had violated law on public organizations, thereby ruling out its participation in the elections.
Prosperity and stability in Kazakhstan _ mainly driven by its vast reserves of oil, gas and minerals _ account for much of the support for Nur Otan and the president.
Kazakhstan is eager to boost its international image and hopes that a transition to a multiparty parliament will serve to improve its democratic credentials.
"This is a great test for us, we have more than 1,000 observers here from around the world. I am sure that the people of Kazakhstan will make the right choice for their future, for our development, and a peaceful life in our common home," Nazarbayev said after casting his ballot.
The elections are taking place in the shadow of an unusual outburst of discontent and violence.
In December, a long-term protest in the town of Zhanaozen by oil workers who had been fired after striking for better pay degenerated into clashes with police who opened fire. At least 16 people were killed, and the bloodshed set off a riot in another town where police killed one person.
Authorities said voting proceeded without incident in the town.
The recurring theme in the run-up to the elections, as in the polls that saw Nazarbayev reconfirmed president last year with a startling 95 percent of the vote, has been stability above all else.
Any potential for unrest in Kazakhstan is of concern to the West.
Kazakhstan is becoming increasingly important as a supplier of oil and gas, and the country is key to the northern delivery route for supplies to the U.S.-led military operation in Afghanistan.
More than 9 million people are eligible to vote in Sunday's elections and turnout is expected to be high. Although popular political engagement is low, mass participation in elections is a feature that has been carried over from Soviet times.
University students are regularly pressured into voting by teaching staff and government workers also face similar coercion. Gifts, such as household electrical goods, are typically handed out to first-time voters and war veterans as an additional inducement.
Election officials said no violations had been reported by early afternoon, but local independent observers from the Young Professionals Association noted a series of infringements at numerous polling stations across the country.
International observers from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe are due to give their assessment Monday. The organization has never given an election in Kazakhstan a completely clean bill of health.
Vote monitors noted numerous cases of ballot box-stuffing, voter intimidation and a lack of transparency in the 2011 presidential election.
The All-National Social-Democratic Party, or OSDP, the only genuinely robust opposition force among the seven parties in the running, also reported observing bussing of voters to several precincts in Astana and the business capital, Almaty.
OSDP had two of its most high-visibility candidates _ leader Bulat Abilov and colorful media commentator Guljan Yergaliyeva _ disqualified from running over alleged irregularities in their financial declarations. The party plans to hold protest meetings in several cities Tuesday, although such gatherings rarely attract large numbers.
Results will trickle in overnight and a statement detailing preliminary results is expected from election officials Monday morning.
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