Ten people killed, dozens wounded and thousands flee as brawl between Dungans and Kazakh police is followed by rampage.
Kazakhstan’s governing party is set to sweep the oil-rich country’s parliamentary election, as it has done for decades, with no major opposition groups running in the vote and small street protests swiftly quelled by police.
An exit poll by Kazakhstan’s Public Opinion Research Institute said the Nur Otan party had won almost 72 percent of Sunday’s vote. As with the current legislature, two other parties cleared the 7 percent threshold to win some seats.
Nursultan Nazarbayev, the 80-year-old former president who stepped down in 2019, remains hugely influential as chairman of the national security council and leader of Nur Otan, which controls 84 of 107 seats in the outgoing lower house.
Although four parties ran in the election apart from Nur Otan, none has openly criticised Nazarbayev or his handpicked successor President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Instead, they have targeted lower-level officials and their policies, an arrangement that government critics said is meant to create an illusion of pluralism.
The Nationwide Social Democratic Party, the main opposition party in the Central Asian nation, boycotted the vote, calling the move a “protest” against a rigged system. Another opposition movement, the Democratic Party, failed to secure official registration.
Dozens of opposition supporters rallied at the main squares of Kazakhstan’s biggest city of Almaty on Sunday, shouting “Boycott!” and “Nazarbayev go away!”.
Police in riot gear quickly surrounded them and detained a few dozen people, although the interior ministry later said they were all released shortly afterwards with no arrests.
At a polling station in the capital, Nur Sultan, a 50-year-old man named Nurzhan told the AFP news agency that many Kazakhs “have stopped believing in progress.”
“But I still hope [things] can be better,” he said, explaining his decision to head to the polls despite freezing conditions.
The former Soviet country has never held an election deemed free or fair by Western vote monitors.
While the election outcome will dampen hopes of political reform encouraged by Kazakhstan’s Western partners, it will help to ensure stability that has helped the country of 19 million attract hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign investment, primarily into the oil, gas and mining sectors.
In an attempt to modernise the system without relinquishing his party’s tight grip on power, Tokayev has overseen the introduction of quotas for women and under-29s in political parties’ candidate lists.
“[Further] reforms are being prepared,” Tokayev told reporters after casting his ballot in Nur Sultan. “Reforms must not stop.”
The World Bank has estimated Kazakhstan’s economy shrank 2.5 percent in 2020 as it grappled with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic – a first year-on-year recession in some 20 years.