ASTANA (Reuters) - Kazakhstan holds an early presidential election on Sunday that is widely expected to hand President Nursultan Nazarbayev another five years at the helm of Central Asia's largest economy.
Challenged by critics at home and rapped by the West for his authoritarian methods, the 70-year-old former steelworker has ruled Kazakhstan since Soviet days, tolerating little dissent in his vast steppe nation of 16.4 million people.
In more than 20 years of his reign, Kazakhstan has never held an election judged free or fair by international monitors and Nazarbayev called Sunday's vote almost two years before his term had been due to end.
The opposition, which was left no with time to mobilize its forces, has denounced the early election as a farce and called for a boycott, condemning it as a "Nazarbayev show."
Kazakhstan's chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe last year was presented by state media as Nazarbayev's achievement. But it was also marred by Western criticism of Astana's backtracking on democratic reforms.
The echo of the people's revolutions that toppled long-serving authoritarian rulers in Tunisia and Egypt, and of uprisings in other parts of the Arab world, is almost inaudible in Nazarbayev's predominantly Muslim oil-rich nation.
"Most people associate their success, the life of their children, with President Nazarbayev," Nurlan Yermekbayev, the president's adviser on foreign affairs, told Reuters.
"They are sure that all his programmes, goals and ambitious projects may be achieved only under the condition of stability, under a strong leader."
Genuinely popular with many people across a nation five times the size of France, Nazarbayev has made stability and welfare the main slogans of his policies, overseeing market reforms and attracting massive foreign investment.
Living standards in Kazakhstan are higher than elsewhere in volatile Central Asia. Thousands of young Kazakhs have been trained abroad on a Nazarbayev-sponsored program.
Nazarbayev, who has built warm ties with giant neighbours Russia and China, pleased the United States and the European Union in January by rejecting a proposal by his loyalists to extend his presidency until 2020 through a referendum.
He has said he will rule as long as his health and people will allow. Few doubt Nazarbayev will easily defeat the other three presidential hopefuls, who have never openly opposed him.
They are Mels Yeleusizov, standing for the environmental movement Tabigat, Gani Kasymov of the Party of Patriots of Kazakhstan and Zhambyl Akhmetbekov of the Communist People's Party of Kazakhstan.
In the previous polls in 2005, Nazarbayev was re-elected by 91.15 percent of votes. Voter turnout was 76.78 percent.
How many of the 9.1 million eligible voters turn out is one of the few unknown factors in this election.
The nation, which covers two time zones, will start voting at 7 a.m. (8 p.m. EDT) in the east and polling stations close at 8 p.m. in the west (1500 GMT). The first official results are expected early on Monday.
(Reporting by Robin Paxton in Astana and Dmitry Solovyov in Almaty; editing by David Stamp)