Kazakhstan has elected interim leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev – the hand-picked successor of long-term former longtime president Nursultan Nazarbayev – as the country’s new president, preliminary results suggest.
The early results on Monday showed Tokayev, 66, a career diplomat who has been serving as interim president since Nazarbayev resigned in March, taking 70.76 percent of the vote.
A government-approved “Public Opinion” pollster on Sunday showed Tokayev’s closest rival Amirzhan Kosanov receiving 15 percent of the vote.
The figures came as hundreds of people were arrested in rare protests in capital Nur-Sultan and the country’s main commercial city, Almaty.
The protesters were calling for a boycott of the snap election, which they allege was staged to put a politician loyal to Nazarbayev in the country’s top seat.
The resignation of the 78-year-old leader who led Kazakhstan since its separation from the Soviet Union in 1991, came as a surprise to many who expected him to run for re-election next year.
The build-up to the vote saw an intensifying crackdown on the opposition with courts sentencing protesters to short stays in jail and police raiding activists’ homes.
The interior ministry said around 500 people were arrested on Sunday, with deputy minister Marat Kozhayev blaming “radical elements” for holding “unsanctioned” rallies.
Protesters shouted “shame, shame, shame!” and said “police, come to the side of the people” as officers moved in on the crowd.
A number of journalists were also arrested, as was a representative of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee rights NGO. They were all later released.
Dimash Alzhanov, a noted civic activist and political analyst, was still being held on Sunday evening.
Four years ago, Nazarbayev scored nearly 98 percent of a virtually uncontested vote where the official turnout was 95 percent.
No Kazakh vote has ever been recognised as fully democratic by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which had sent more than 300 observers to monitor the election.
Ivan Sedov, a 42-year-old entrepreneur from Almaty, said he voted for Daniya Yespayeva, 58, the only woman on the ballot “in the spirit of protest … and so that no one else votes for me”.
There is only one openly opposition candidate in the race, journalist Amirzhan Kosanov, who has a track record of criticising the government.
However, he has come under fire for a lacklustre campaign in which he vaguely criticised the government, rather than attacking either Tokayev or his predecessor directly.
Human Rights Watch called the prospect of a genuine political transition “an illusion” and noted the persistence of rights abuses under Tokayev’s presidency.
“Kazakh authorities routinely break up peaceful protests, forcibly round up participants – sometimes literally binding their hands and feet – and sanction them with warnings, fines, and short-term imprisonment,” the rights group said.