In Kazakh heartland, support for leader unwavering

Reuters News
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Posted: Apr 02, 2011 4:32 AM

By Robin Paxton

AKSU-AYULY, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - Voters will flock to the polls in the Kazakh farming community of Aksu-Ayuly on Sunday with one thing in mind: to extend the rule of their veteran leader for five more years.

With 70-year-old incumbent Nursultan Nazarbayev assured of victory in the snap presidential poll, the only intrigue surrounds voter turnout in the nation of 16.4 million people.

The 2,000 residents of Aksu-Ayuly, like similar villages across Kazakhstan's wide open steppe, have been won over by the president's mantra of "stability," which they say sets Kazakhstan apart from its volatile Central Asian neighbors.

"People are free to vote for whomever they choose," said Farida Kasymova, a local government official in Aksu-Ayuly, 500 km (310 miles) south of the capital Astana. "We are simply doing everything we can to ensure we have 100 percent turnout."

Nazarbayev has led Kazakhstan since 1989, two years before independence from the Soviet Union. In 21 years, he has never held an election judged free and fair by international monitors.

Reuters interviewed dozens of Kazakhstani citizens along the 1,300-km (810-mile) road between the largest city, Almaty, and Astana. Only one person, a teenage girl, said she would not vote for Nazarbayev -- because she had not yet reached voting age.

Voting is not compulsory in Kazakhstan, but many say they wish to show their support for a leader they say has preserved order between the 140 nationalities that call Kazakhstan home.

The echo of uprisings in parts of the Arab world and the people's revolutions that toppled the long-serving authoritarian leaders of Tunisia and Egypt is almost inaudible in Kazakhstan.

"For all the years he has been in power, we have enjoyed peace and harmony," said retired cattle farmer Aman Ryskulov.

Several members of Kazakhstan's fragmented opposition have called for a boycott to try to discredit the results of a vote they dismiss as farce. None of the three rival candidates have publicly opposed Nazarbayev's policies.

But outside major cities, there is no appetite for change.

"The other three candidates are worthy people, but they are risky," said 47-year-old cattle farmer Ibragim Amandykov. "We have lived in peace for 20 years. This is no small achievement when you look at how many nationalities we have in Kazakhstan."

LOW-KEY CAMPAIGN

When Nazarbayev was last re-elected in 2005, with a 91.2 percent majority, turnout was 76.8 percent. There is no minimum turnout requirement.

According to a 2009 census, 47 percent of Kazakhstan's population lives in rural areas. In previous elections, voter turnout in the countryside has regularly exceeded 90 percent.

In Almaty, home to most opposition activists, there are some dissenting voices. Former railway worker Kuralbek Ansarkhan, 45, moved there from the city of Shymkent in search of odd jobs.

"I don't expect anything from these elections," he said. "The people should take their demands to the street. I'll be the first in line."

But such voices are rare in Kazakhstan, where average incomes are four times higher than in Egypt. So confident is Nazarbayev of victory, he abstained from nationwide campaigning.

In Aksu-Ayuly, the only clue to the forthcoming election was a handful of pro-Nazarbayev posters pasted to the window of a grocery store, as untethered cows wandered past.

"I will vote for Nazarbayev so we can live in peace and our community will flourish," said Bakhyt Iskakova, 56, as she swept the yard outside the local employment office where she works.

In the industrial city of Balkhash, 600 km (375 miles) north of Almaty, there was only one large billboard supporting Nazarbayev. None of his rival candidates advertise themselves.

"I will vote for Nazarbayev. And let me tell you this: my family and all my relatives will vote for him too. We don't need anybody else," said Saule Zhamberbayeva, a fruit and vegetable seller at the central bazaar in Balkhash.

Her fellow market traders broke into an impromptu chant of: "Nazarbayev! Nazarbayev!"

Two employees of the copper smelter that dominates Balkhash said they would vote for Nazarbayev. "The most important thing is stability," said 60-year-old technician Valery Shepayev.

Residents also attached little blame to the government for rising food prices, a trend that eased in March when monthly inflation slowed to 0.5 percent from 1.5 percent in February.

"This is the trend worldwide. It's not particular to us," said Stanislav Tsoi, a pensioner in a wide-brimmed cowboy hat.

(Editing by Alison Williams)