By Dmitry Solovyov
ZHANAOZEN, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - Kazakhstan began voting on Sunday in an election designed to put a second party in parliament and ease growing discontent after deadly riots shook the image of stability prized by the veteran leader of Central Asia's largest economy and oil producer.
No one doubts President Nursultan Nazarbayev's Nur Otan party will win by a landslide. The second-placed party will also be guaranteed a presence in the 107-seat chamber, whether or not it clears the 7 percent entry threshold.
But Nazarbayev's most critical opponents have been barred from standing, and the party that is expected to come second is a pro-business group led by a former ruling party member.
Nazarbayev, 71, in power since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, remains overwhelmingly popular throughout most of his mainly Muslim country of 16.7 million people. Its relative wealth has ensured Kazakhstan was long spared the sort of unrest seen in other former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
But complaints have grown that many have remained poor while an elite few grew rich. Anger erupted last month in the remote western region of Mangistau, where oilmen sacked by their state-owned employers had been protesting for seven months.
Officials say 17 people were killed in clashes during which police fired live rounds. Some residents of Zhanaozen, a dusty oil town 150 km (95 miles) from the Caspian Sea, believe the death toll was higher. A state of emergency remains in place.
Black-clad security forces patrolled the town of 90,000 as polls opened in a blizzard. The first voter at a local school, a middle-aged woman, was presented with a vase. An unclaimed set of crystal glasses awaited the first 18-year-old voter.
"I have just voted for our children to have a better future, to have good jobs so that their lives become better than ours," said Kumlyumkos Nurgazinov, 63, an oilfield machinery operator.
One of the first to vote, he cast his ballot for Nur Otan. "The events that took place here should never be repeated, God forbid," he said. Cars drove slowly on slush-covered roads, snaking around concrete roadblocks placed throughout the town.
Another man in his late 50s, who declined to identify himself, said he voted for the Party of Patriots of Kazakhstan, one of seven parties on the ballot paper. "I have no hope. I don't expect any changes for the better," he said.
Kazakhstan, four times the size of Texas, holds 3 percent of global oil reserves and has attracted more than $120 billion in foreign investment in two decades of independence. It boasts per capita GDP on a par with that of Turkey or Mexico.
But with discontent growing about the distribution of wealth and an economic crisis looming, Kazakhstan called the election seven months early. Presidential adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbayev said on December 12 Kazakhstan was at a time of "social reckoning."
Politicians are wary of the mass protests that greeted a disputed election in Russia, still Kazakhstan's biggest trading partner and a cultural reference point for its millions of Russian-speaking citizens.
"This is a big examination for us," Nazarbayev said after voting in the national library in Astana, his futuristic capital on the windswept steppe. "I'm sure Kazakhstanis will make the right choice for their future and for our peaceful development."
He cast his ballot shortly after his eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, a 48-year-old opera enthusiast and former media executive who is expected to return to frontline politics after being included on the Nur Otan party list.
"Most important is the fact we will no longer have a one-party parliament," Nazarbayeva said.
The party widely expected to claim second place and a spot in parliament is the pro-business Ak Zhol, membership of which has swollen rapidly since its founder left Nur Otan last year to build it into the country's second-largest political force.
Its presence in parliament would assure a managed democracy but would not placate Nazarbayev's most vehement critics, most of whom have been barred from the election on technicalities. Western monitors have never judged a Kazakh vote free and fair.
The critical Communist Party has been suspended while outspoken opposition candidates from the Social-Democratic Party, which is standing, were removed from their party list for allegedly making inaccurate declarations of income and property.
"This election will be another missed opportunity to bring political debate into the Kazakh parliament," said Lilit Gevorgyan, analyst at IHS Global Insight.
A crowd of around 30 peaceful demonstrators gathered briefly on Saturday in Almaty, the commercial capital and largest city, and urged people to boycott the ballot.
Saule Batyrbekova, a pensioner living on $160 a month, said her apartment was being repossessed. "They don't care about ordinary people and the way these people survive," she said.
Kazakhstan's economy grew by 7.5 percent last year and the country has accumulated nearly $75 billion in foreign currency reserves and a National Fund for windfall oil revenues.
"These funds will be needed in the event of new crises, cataclysms, from which nobody in the modern world is immune," Nazarbayev said in a pre-election address to the nation.
(Additional reporting by Raushan Nurshayeva in Astana, Robin Paxton, Mariya Gordeyeva and Olga Orininskaya in Almaty; Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Ralph Gowling)