By Robin Paxton
ASTANA (Reuters) - Kazakhstan's veteran President Nursultan Nazarbayev is poised to win another five years in charge of his oil-rich Central Asian state after a snap election on Sunday devoid of any challenge to his two decades in power.
The echo of popular revolutions in the Arab world is almost inaudible in the predominantly Muslim nation, where Nazarbayev is popular for making stability his main motto, overseeing market reforms and attracting more than $120 billion in foreign investment. He even secured the vote of a rival candidate.
But he is challenged by critics at home and rapped by the West for his authoritarian methods. Nazarbayev, 70, has ruled Kazakhstan since Soviet days, tolerating little dissent.
Kazakhstan has never held an election judged free or fair by international monitors. Nazarbayev called Sunday's vote almost two years before his term had been due to end, rejecting a plan for a referendum to extend his reign unchallenged until 2020.
Living standards in Kazakhstan are higher than elsewhere in Central Asia, a volatile region bordering Afghanistan unsettled by poverty, ethnic tensions, radical Islam and the drug trade.
"Together we will vote for stability in our society, for friendship in our polyethnic nation, for our future and for the future of our children," Nazarbayev said after casting his vote in the national library in the showpiece capital Astana.
"Today's vote of our citizens will stress our unity and our aspiration to implement everything that was mapped out in my state-of-the-nation address," he said, making clear he wanted to oversee an industrialization drive over the next decade to 2020.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), chaired last year by Kazakhstan, stationed more than 300 observers around the country. Its election monitors issued a critical interim report ahead of the vote.
Janez Lenarcic, director of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, said restrictions on the media and on freedom of expression were among the shortcomings.
"Efforts are being made by the authorities to make further progress in the area of democratic reforms, which currently seem to be lagging somewhat behind the achievements of Kazakhstan in economic and social development," Lenarcic told reporters.
The fragmented opposition, blind-sided by the early vote, denounced the election as "the Nazarbayev show" and had called for a boycott. Turnout, though, was given officially as 89.9 percent, compared to 76.8 percent in the last election in 2005.
In both Astana and Almaty, turnout fell just short of 70 percent. In the regions, it was close to or above 90 percent, the Central Election Commission said.
Environmentalist Mels Yeleusizov, one of three candidates nominally standing against the president, voted for Nazarbayev.
"He is the winner. It was kind of a sports event," he said after voting in Almaty. "He has won, and I shake his hand."
A small number of violations and minor incidents occurred. A disabled person set fire to a pro-Nazarbayev billboard in the northern city of Pavlodar, said Andrei Kravchenko, spokesman for the prosecutor-general's office.
He also said members of the Azat opposition party, which did not put forward a candidate, had received threatening text messages from an unidentified source, warning them not to work at polling stations. An investigation is under way.
Nazarbayev's expected re-election does nothing to answer the question cited by many investors as the biggest political risk in Kazakhstan: who will eventually succeed Nazarbayev?
The president, who has built warm ties with giant neighbors Russia and China, has said he will rule for as long as his health and his people will allow. Some analysts say he could use his next five years in office to groom a pliant successor.
"We don't yet have confidence in any other person," said pensioner Fidaya Sabirova, 70, after voting in Astana. "Where there are wars all around, we have calm."
Alau Murzhusupov, a 30-year-old father of two in the capital, echoed her: "A strong leader means a strong country."
The first 10 people to arrive at each polling station, as well as first-time voters, received gifts such as food blenders and computer memory cards in a modern twist to the Soviet-era tradition of creating a festival atmosphere around elections.
School headmistress Layla Adilova, 37, said she voted for Nazarbayev. People in her profession were earning up to $480 a month and were awaiting a 30 percent pay rise in July, she said.
In the previous polls in 2005, Nazarbayev won 91.15 percent of the vote. First official results are expected on Monday.
(Additional reporting by Olga Orininskaya and Maria Gordeyeva in Almaty, Raushan Nurshayeva in Astana and Vladimir Pirogov in Kordai; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Michael Roddy)