Ten people killed, dozens wounded and thousands flee as brawl between Dungans and Kazakh police is followed by rampage.
Voters headed to parliamentary polls in Kazakhstan on Sunday with the ruling party expected to score a big win and the oil-rich country’s only registered opposition force boycotting the ballot.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, 67, has pledged gradual political reform in the authoritarian Central Asian nation since being eased into his post by Nursultan Nazarbayev, who called time on nearly 30 years as head of state in early 2019.
But 80-year-old Nazarbayev retains powerful positions, including the chairmanship of the Nur Otan party that controls the lower house and boasts 800,000 members among a population of 19 million.
The party is expected to win a commanding majority in the lower house polls featuring four other competing parties that are viewed as proxies.
The only party that styles itself as the opposition, the Nationwide Social Democratic Party (NSDP), ruled itself out of the contest in November, calling the move a “protest” against a rigged system.
The ex-Soviet country has never held an election deemed free or fair by Western vote monitors.
Most residents of the capital Nur-Sultan interviewed by AFP news agency said they planned to skip the vote either because of the bitter cold or the lack of real alternatives to Nur Otan.
Sonya Sartayeva, a pensioner, said she would vote “if they brought a ballot box to my house” as temperatures hovered well below freezing.
She added rising coronavirus cases – which climbed to more than 161,000 on the eve of the vote – were also a concern.
The most notable candidate on the ballot is Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, 57, who is representing Nur Otan.
Her return to politics comes just eight months after Tokayev fired her from the position of senate speaker – a role that places the occupant second in line to the presidency.
The dismissal, which was not explained, triggered speculation over a power struggle in Kazakhstan’s leadership.
But the new president regularly lavishes praise on his mentor’s achievements and has pledged to continue his strategic course. The two men appeared together at a Nur Otan party congress in November.
Madiyar, an 18-year-old student in Nur-Sultan, said she and her friends were unlikely to exercise their first opportunity to vote on Sunday.
“We doubt our voice will be heard. I don’t think that there will be significant changes after the vote,” said the student, who asked that her last name be withheld.
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 two decades.
But suffocating authoritarianism has left few outlets to voice dissatisfaction with the status quo.
NSDP faced off with the ruling party in the last three parliamentary votes, missing out on the legislature each time.
The party’s decision not to participate in the upcoming elections came as France-based fugitive banker and longtime regime nemesis Mukhtar Ablyazov called on opposition activists to vote for NSDP, even as he cast doubt over its opposition credentials.
After the NSDP withdrew from the ballot, Ablyazov asked activists to campaign instead for the pro-government Ak Zhol party as a way to decrease Nur Otan’s stranglehold on power.
Late last month two opposition activists in the northeastern town of Semey were fined $100 each by a court for distributing photocopies of Ak Zhol’s leaflets.
The court said they had done so “without [Ak Zhol’s] stated permission”, according to verdicts seen by AFP – one of several instances of authorities cracking down on campaigning.
Talgat Mamiraimov, a political commentator based in the country’s largest city Almaty, described Sunday’s parliamentary vote as a “pointless spectacle”.
Polls opened at 7am and close at 8pm (1400 GMT) with a state-endorsed exit poll expected later on Sunday night.