Weekend elections have determined that Kazakhstan's parliament is no longer a one-party chamber, but international observers say the vote failed to meet democratic standards.
Authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbayev had called the snap election in November, so Kazakhstan could proceed further along the path of democracy, he said.
According to preliminary results announced Monday, Nazarbayev's Nur Otan party won 80.7 percent of the vote, with two other parties achieving slightly more than 7 percent each, thereby clearing the threshold to enter parliament.
That as many as three parties managed to win seats came as a surprise to many. Since 2007, the 107-member lower chamber _ the Majlis _ had been solely occupied by Nazarbayev's deputies and nine others nominated with his direct approval. Before then, the parliament was occupied by multiple pliable and pro-government parties.
Under changes to election law approved in 2009, a minimum of two parties would get through in the next vote, ensuring there would no repeat of the one-party parliament.
The 71-year old president, who has led the former Soviet Central Asian republic since before independence in 1991, insisted Monday that the election outcome was nothing short of an achievement of historic proportions.
"This is our common victory, a victory for all the people of Kazakhstan," he told a gathering of supporters in the capital, Astana.
But monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation saw it differently, saying that the election had failed to meet democratic fundamentals.
"If Kazakhstan is serious about their stated goals of increasing the number of parties in parliament, then the country should have allowed more genuine opposition parties to participate in this election," Joao Soares, who led the short-term contingent of the observer mission, said at a news conference.
Monitors have also said the vote-count was not transparent.
"As a result, in many instances, it was not possible for observers to determine whether voters' choices were honestly reflected," the OSCE said.
Opposition supporters also noted that a more combative Communist party than the one elected Sunday with a higher public profile was suspended by a court for six months in October for violating the law on public organizations, thereby ruling out its participation in the vote.
Another party, Alga, which has distinguished itself by its unwavering criticism of the Nazarbayev government, has routinely been denied registration.
The source of the criticism is particularly stinging for Kazakhstan, which successfully lobbied for years to become chair of the OSCE in 2010 in an achievement it trumpeted as a sign it had been welcomed into the community of advanced, democratic states.
The vast nation, which occupies an area around the size of Western Europe and shares long borders with Russia and China, is becoming increasingly important as a supplier of oil and gas, and is key to the northern delivery route for supplies to the United States-led military operation in Afghanistan.
Despite the new additions to parliament, Nur Otan is still unlikely to face robust adversaries. Business-oriented Ak Zhol, which came second with 7.5 percent of the 7 million votes cast, is closed tied to Nazarbayev's billionaire son-in-law Timur Kulibayev.
Likewise, the People's Communist Party _ led by a politician who only managed to tally 1.4 percent of the vote in last year's presidential election _ is viewed largely as a toothless irrelevance. It finished in third, with 7.2 percent of the vote.
The only genuinely opposition force among the seven parties contesting the election, the beleaguered All-National Social-Democratic Party, or OSDP, garnered just 1.8 percent of the vote, falling well short of the minimum 7 percent mark required to enter parliament. It has said it will mount protests against the result, saying that it was a result of fraud.
"These elections are a line the authorities have crossed _ a rubicon after which all hopes that the current authorities can reform themselves are lost," said OSDP co-leader Zharmakhan Tuyakbay.