Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's leader since the Soviet era, is expected to win another term [Reuters]

Voters have flocked to polling stations in Kazakhstan's capital of Astana to cast their vote in the country's presidential elections.

It is widely expected that the elections on Sunday will see Nursultan Nazarbayev, the current president, secure another five years in office.

At polling station number three, located in the city's Congress Hall, residents praised the incumbent leader.

"We (vote) only for Nazarbayev, we love and respect him," Sedaiye Sabirova, a participating voter, told the Reuters news agency.

"After all, (Nazarbayev) is eliminating corruption which is eroding our society, I wish him health and let him
work as long as he can," added another voter, Andrey Lazovsky.

Challenged by critics at home and rapped by the West for his authoritarian methods, the 70-year-old former
steelworker has ruled Kazakhstan since the Soviet era, tolerating little dissent in his vast steppe nation of 16.4 million people.

Free and fair?

In more than 20 years of his reign, Kazakhstan has never held an election judged free or fair by international
monitors and Nazarbayev called Sunday's vote almost two years before his term had been due to end.

The opposition, which was left with no time to mobilise its forces, has denounced the early election as a farce and called for a boycott, condemning it as a "Nazarbayev show".

Genuinely popular with many people across a nation five times the size of France, Nazarbayev has made stability and welfare the main slogans of his policies, overseeing market reforms and attracting massive foreign investment.

Living standards in Kazakhstan are higher than elsewhere in volatile Central Asia. Thousands of young
Kazakhs have been trained abroad on a Nazarbayev-sponsored programme.

Nazarbayev, who has built warm ties with giant neighbours Russia and China, pleased the United States and
the European Union in January by rejecting a proposal by his loyalists to extend his presidency until 2020 through a referendum.

He has said he will rule as long as his health and people will allow. Few doubt Nazarbayev will easily defeat
the other three presidential hopefuls, who have never openly opposed him. They are Mels Yeleusizov, standing for the environmental movement Tabigat, Gani Kasymov of the Party of Patriots of Kazakhstan and Zhambyl Akhmetbekov of the Communist People's Party of Kazakhstan.

In the previous polls in 2005, Nazarbayev was re-elected by 91.15 per cent of votes. Voter turnout then was
76.78 per cent.

How many of the 9.1 million eligible voters turn out on Sunday is one of the few unknown factors in this election.

The nation, which covers two time zones, began voting at 7 a.m. (0100 GMT) in the east and polling
stations close at 8 p.m.

Source: Agencies