But political reforms have not appeared much on the president's agenda, at least not so far.

He has pledged that, if voters elect him to a seven-year term on Sunday, he will begin the process of political liberalisation.

Nazarbayev, 65, who made the oil-rich nation the most prosperous and stable in the region, is expected to win an easy victory. The opposition is weakened by limited media access, and his personal popularity is high.

Nazarbayev is one of three Soviet-era leaders still in power in the 15 countries that used to comprise the USSR.

But he is distinctly different from the two others -  Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan and Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan - both of whom are widely criticised for dismal human rights records and for making no effort to reform their countries' economies.

Analysts describe Nazarbayev as a shrewd politician and a hard-working manager.

In foreign politics, he has maintained good relations with the West and Kazakhstan's two giant neighbours, Russia and China.

Rise to power

Born into a shepherd's family in a southern Kazakh village, Nazarbayev began his career as a worker, then an engineer at the giant Karaganda metal works where he became a Communist Party activist.

Nazarbayev's image was marred
by the Kazakhgate oil scandal

Later, he trained as an economist and rose up the party hierarchy to become the Kazakh Socialist Republic's Communist leader in 1989.

The Soviet break-up in 1991 left Nazarbayev at the helm of the ninth-largest country in the world, with rich oil and gas reserves.

Although in the early years of independence workers went on strike and pensioners demonstrated over unpaid wages and benefits, Kazakhstan has since become rapidly more prosperous.

Kazakhstan's economy grew by 75% in the past seven years as oil deals signed in the early 1990s with transnational oil companies, the privatisation of major industries, and monetary and pension reforms began to pay off.

Political reforms

Nazarbayev allowed some political reforms in the early days of his rule but, analysts say, started to back off in the late 1990s.

Some young Cabinet members rebelled in 2001, demanding democratic changes.

He sacked them all, and some of them now back his main election challenger, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, who leads the For a Fair Kazakhstan alliance.

 

Nazarbayev has gone in for
yellow as his campaign colour

Nazarbayev won the 1999 presidential elections after disqualifying Akezhan Kazhegeldin, his main rival and the former prime minister, who now lives in exile in Europe.

In recent years, Nazarbayev's image has been marred by a corruption scandal involving his former adviser, who is accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes for himself and two senior Kazakh officials from oil contracts in the United States.

Kazakhgate

Nazarbayev spoke publicly about the case - dubbed Kazakhgate - only once, last year, and dismissed allegations of his involvement as "insinuations and a provocation".

Nazarbayev says that if re-elected he will increase the role of parliament, the political parties and local government, and relax restrictions on the media.

Earlier this year, Nazarbayev offered a tangible rise in wages and pensions and travelled all over the country, receiving blanket coverage on local television - most of which is controlled by his family or loyalists.

In moves apparently driven by lessons of colour-coded election-related revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, Nazarbayev also tightened rules on demonstrations and restricted the activity of political groups and foreign aid groups.

Just like the opposition, Nazarbayev's campaign managers went for yellow as their campaign colour.