The ruling party of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev appeared set for a crushing election win with more than 80 per cent of the vote but with up to two other parties gaining a foothold in parliament, according to exit polls.
The snap parliamentary elections had been called early to breathe new life into a system under which Nazarbayev, 71, put economic prosperity before political freedoms and in which his party, Nur Otan, had until now controlled all the seats in parliament.
"Our party has won by a great margin," Nazarbayev said at the Nur Otan campaign headquarters, according to his press service. "This shows that our programme and the work we have done is supported by the people," he added.
The anti-government opposition has already alleged that the elections were marred by flagrant violations, but Nazarbayev said that the polls were "unprecedented in their transparency, openness and honesty."
An exit poll by the Institute of Democracy said both the pro-business Ak Zhol party and the Communist Party would scrape into parliament with 7.3 per cent of the vote apiece but with Nur Otan dominant on 81 per cent.
The minimum threshold to win seats in parliament is seven per cent. The first official results are expected on Monday.
Another poll by the Institute of Social and Political Research gave almost identical figures, saying that Ak Zhol (Bright Path) polled 7.9 per cent and Nur Otan (Light of the Fatherland) 80.5 per cent.
The only vehemently anti-government party, the All-National Social Democratic Party (OSDP), was set to win only up to 1.5 per cent of the vote, the exit polls said.
“From the government’s point of view, this election has gone well. The voting has proceeded calmly despite the fact this election comes a month after deadly violence in the west of the country,” Joanna Lillis, a freelance journalist based in Almaty, told Al Jazeera.
“But all eyes are on what the international observers will have to say about this election. Since independence, Kazakhstan has never held an election that’s deemed free and fair by international observers."
Six parties challenged Nur Otan under a 2009 election law which stipulates the second-place finisher will get seats even if it wins less than the seven per cent threshold.
Prosperity and stability
Kazakhstan, a mainly Muslim country of 16.7 million people, has attracted more than $120bn in foreign investment in two decades of independence from the Soviet Union.
Prosperity and stability, mainly driven by Kazakhstan's vast reserves of oil, gas and minerals, account for much of the president's support.
However, the elections took place in the shadow of an unusual outburst of discontent and violence. In December, protests by oil workers, who had been fired after striking for better pay, degenerated into clashes with police who opened fire, killing at least 16 people.
The president had expressed hope that Sunday's vote would give Kazakhstan a more modern looking parliament one month after the riots in the town of Zhanaozen.
"The government says 'we are going to have a two-party parliament' ... But that party most likely to get in is a business-oriented party, and a party that critics say is entirely comfortable with the current status quo," our correspondent said.
"The genuine opposition are not really in the runnings today. One party isn't even able to get registered, and another one, two politicians aren't even able to run; they have been barred from running," he added.
"If we are cheated this time around, then there won't be any more elections in our country, we don't play these games," OSDP chair Zharmakhan Tuyakbai told his supporters at an election rally. "If they lie to us this time, steal people's votes, we'll take to the streets."
The opposition and international observers condemned the conduct of the April 2011 presidential election which saw Nazarbayev win over 95 per cent of the vote in a poll where even one of his rivals voted for the Kazakh strongman.
A total of 9.2 million people were registered to take part in the vote to choose 98 deputies in the 107-seat Mazhilis ("Assembly" in Kazakh). The other nine legislators, representing Kazakhstan's various ethnic groups, will be selected by its people's assembly on Monday.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies