ALMATY, Kazakhstan (AP) — Voters in oil-rich Kazakhstan turned out in abundance Sunday for a carefully choreographed presidential election intended to cement the rule of the incumbent, who has ruled over the former Soviet republic for more than 25 years.
The election took place against the backdrop of a slump in economic growth and a mood of anxiety provoked by unrest in the nearby countries of Ukraine and Afghanistan.
Speaking after casting his ballot, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, 74, said the snap election was a chance for his fellow countrymen to vote for continuity.
"For stability in the government, for support of the policies that the country has pursued under my leadership," he said after voting at a polling station in the capital, Astana.
Nazarbayev said he would after his re-election pursue creation of a constitutional reform commission to boost the economy and promote political development, greater transparency and openness. Kazakhstan currently enjoys a dismal international reputation for corruption and political and media freedoms.
Election officials said turnout had reached 90 percent by 6 p.m. local time (1400 GMT; 10 a.m. EDT), two hours ahead of polling stations closing. That high tally came despite what international observers with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe described as a "hardly visible" campaign.
Voter turnout is typically high in authoritarian states in Central Asia — the result of habit carried over from Soviet times and massive marshalling exercises by state officials.
Nazarbayev's victory over his two nominal rivals, a trade union official and a Communist politician, has been seen as all but a formality since the elections were announced. The communist candidate, Turgun Syzdykov, ran on a platform that included supporting Nazarbayev.
Out of the several dozen voters questioned in the business capital, Almaty, only two declared their intent to vote for Nazarbayev's rivals and the stability message appeared to have driven home.
"I am voting for Nazarbayev, because I need no changes in my life. I am happy with things as they are under the current authorities," said Daniyar Yerzhanov, 43. "We businessmen don't need the kind of democracy you get in Ukraine. We need stability and predictability."
The only unpredictable element in Sunday's race has concerned the size of Nazarbayev's certain win. He garnered 95.5 percent of the vote with a 90-percent turnout in 2011. Both figures are likely to be higher on this occasion with the official rhetoric trumpeting the leader's indispensability having only intensified since that time.
Riding high on the back of its oil, gas and mineral wealth, Kazakhstan has posted healthy growth figures over the past two decades, with the exception of a notable blip during the global economic crisis in 2008.
However, low oil prices and the recession in neighboring Russia, a large trading partner that has been hit with international sanctions for its role in the unrest in Ukraine, are dampening performance.
All international financial organizations see the country continuing its growth trajectory this year and the next, but at a far less impressive rate than previously.
The political unrest that led to the toppling of a Russia-friendly leader in Ukraine in 2014 sent ripples of alarm throughout authoritarian regions of the former Soviet Union. Kazakhstan has watched with dismay the war that ensued there as ethnic Russians were goaded by Moscow into mounting an armed insurrection.
Kazakhstan has its own substantial Russian minority and worries about the potential for such a large ethnic group to pursue a separatist agenda similar to that seen in east Ukraine.
Nazarbayev did no real campaigning for the election, but he did dwell intensely on rehearsing well-worn refrains on social and ethnic harmony.
The weekend presidential election was preceded Thursday by a congress of the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan, a talking shop devoted to cultivating national unity. At the event, Nazarbayev declared that the authorities would "robustly prevent any form of ethnic radicalism, regardless from where it arises."
Nazarbayev will be almost 80 when the next presidential term comes to a close, and many worry whether his health will hold out. No clear succession plan is in place and with all semblance of political competition having been snuffed out by the authorities, uncertainty is strong.
One fear is that a successor to Nazarbayev could seek to cheaply bolster their mandate by striking a populist nationalist chord.
Those worries appeared not to faze voters in Almaty, however.
"There are no alternatives to him. And he is taking Kazakhstan along the right path," said government employee Yelena Burlakova, 44. "His age is of no concern. As long as he is breathing, we will vote for him."
With no real alternative candidates on offer, anybody opposing Nazarbayev was left only with the option of not voting at all.
"A campaign of brainwashing has taken place over the past quarter century and no alternative can and will be offered," said artist Arman Bektasov, 30. "The people of Kazakhstan have only one choice. What is the point of voting if the outcome has already been decided?"