Kazakhstan's longtime leader overwhelmingly won re-election in a vote sharply criticized Monday by international monitors who cited numerous cases of ballot box-stuffing, voter intimidation and a lack of transparency.
Kazakhstan election officials said President Nursultan Nazarbayev got 95 percent of the vote in Sunday's election against three nominal candidates. His crushing win was expected, but the astonishingly high 90 percent turnout figure surprised many. Opposition politicians had refused to take part in the vote and called for a boycott.
"We have regrettably to conclude that the elections were not as good as we hoped and expected," said Daan Everts, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's long-term observation mission.
Everts said his mission received multiple reports of people being pressured to vote, and government officials were seen intimidating voters in universities, hospitals and military encampments.
"This, of course, could explain the spectacular high turnout," he said.
The criticism by monitors undercuts Nazarbayev's recent claim that the oil-rich Central Asian nation is on the path to full democracy. But the president was jubilant Monday as the vote results were announced, claiming the election bolstered Kazakhstan's image.
"We have won. This a victory for all of us," Nazarbayev said to rapturous applause at a hall packed with his supporters. "Kazakhstan has once again shown the whole world that we are a growing young state that has earned the respect of the global community, that we are open to the whole world."
Nazarbayev, 70, has led Kazakhstan virtually unchallenged since the 1980s, when it still formed part of the Soviet Union. Relentless state propaganda and rising income levels have assured Nazarbayev a genuinely high degree of popularity over the years.
The OSCE said Monday that other violations included seemingly identical signatures on voter lists and numerous cases of ballot box-stuffing. The organization said the vote count lacked transparency and that correct procedures were often disregarded.
Evert said that while he was heartened by the increased and equitable coverage of the candidates in news programs, he was disappointed by the lack of debates or any in-depth analysis of election platforms.
In an op-ed piece published last week in The Washington Post, Nazarbayev argued that economic prosperity should come before democracy, and he declared his country an excellent example of how this could be accomplished.
Tonino Picula, who led a short-term OSCE mission, took issue with that reasoning.
"Kazakhstan should be proud of its economic growth, but this election is a sign that unfortunately democratic institutions have not grown at the same pace," Picula said.
Attention now turns to parliamentary elections scheduled for 2012, but which many believe may be held this year. Only one party, Nazarbayev's Nur Otan, is now represented in parliament.
Everts said the conduct of the presidential vote demonstrated the urgency of implementing long-awaited reforms ahead of the parliamentary elections.
(This version CORRECTS Recasts the first paragraph, adds Nazarbayev quotes. Everts' first name _ Daan _ is correct.)