ASTANA/AKTAU, Kazakhstan - Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev described his victory in a weekend election as an endorsement of national unity after unrest by oil workers cast a shadow over a vote that Western monitors said had excluded any genuine opposition.
Two parties, both sympathetic to the president, will for the first time join Nazarbayev’s victorious Nur Otan in parliament after Sunday’s vote to add a veneer of democracy in the face of growing frustration over unequal distribution of oil wealth.
But election observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe delivered a scathing report on Monday, criticising the absence of any real opponents to Nazarbayev, who has ruled the former Soviet republic for more than 20 years.
Nazarbayev told celebrating supporters in a packed sports centre that Nur Otan’s overwhelming win was a vote for stability one month after protests by sacked oil workers in the town of Zhanaozen erupted into clashes that killed at least 16 people.
"Someone or other wanted to turn this to their advantage, to use the Zhanaozen events for political gain," he said.
"Zhanaozen residents gave their answer: nearly 70 percent voted for Nur Otan," he said to rapturous applause. Musicians sang and ticker-tape rained down on thousands of party members.
A state of emergency remains in place in Zhanaozen. Black-clad police armed with rifles patrolled the streets when voters braved a blizzard a day earlier to cast ballots at a school next door to a ransacked electronics store.
In Aktau, capital of Mangistau region 150 km (95 miles) west of Zhanaozen, residents grumbled about social inequality viewed as the trigger for protests that swept the region last month. But voters in the Caspian port still supported the president.
"There is a great deal of injustice. Those with cash in their pockets are always right," said Kenzhegali Ospanov, 36, who sells nuts and dried fruit in a market.
But he added: "We don’t need another president or another party. The main think is to have work. Then, you can use your brains and win your daily bread."
Voter turnout in Mangistau was 74 percent, almost equal to nationwide turnout of 75 percent. Nur Otan won 81 percent of the national vote, while two other parties crossed the 7 percent threshold required to enter parliament.
By finishing second on 7.5 percent, the pro-business Ak Zhol party would have won seats regardless after changes to electoral law guaranteed the end of one-party rule. The Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan also squeezed in, with 7.2 percent.
CRITICAL OPPONENTS BARRED
Stability in Kazakhstan had been upset by a series of Islamist-inspired attacks even before the riots in Zhanaozen.
Kazakh authorities want no repeat of the protests faced by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin after a disputed election last month in a country that is still a cultural reference point for its millions of Russian-speaking citizens.
"I’d be more afraid for Putin’s fate today than that of Nazarbayev," said political analyst Aidos Sarym. "Kazakhstan’s opposition doesn’t possess the symbolic capital that could be transformed into mass social protests."
Nevertheless, the 400-strong team of OSCE observers concluded that Kazakhstan’s pledge to introduce an opposition presence to its 107-seat lower house of parliament was flawed by the exclusion of real opposition parties.
"If Kazakhstan is serious about their stated goals of increasing the number of parties in parliament, then the country should have allowed more genuine opposition parties to participate," said Joao Soares, leader of the short-term mission and head of the delegation of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
A six-month suspension barred the fiercely critical Communist Party, as distinct from the Communist People’s Party, from participating. Another movement critical of Nazarbayev, Alga!, has long been denied registration as a political party.
Bolat Abilov, co-chair of the All-National Social Democratic Party, said his party had been the only true opposition choice. It polled 1.6 percent to finish fourth of seven parties.
His party plans to hold an unsanctioned protest on Tuesday in the commercial centre and largest city, Almaty, where voter turnout of 41 percent was the lowest in the country.
"We don’t recognise these elections," said Abilov, who himself was de-registered from his party list for an incorrect income declaration.
The OSCE criticised the removal of party members from their lists and said excessive restrictions were placed on candidates.
"This election took place in a tightly controlled environment, with serious restrictions on citizens’ electoral rights," said Miklos Haraszti, head of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights’ observation mission.
VOTE FOR STABILITY
Five times the size of France, Kazakhstan holds 3 percent of global oil reserves, is the world’s largest uranium miner and has attracted more than $120 billion in foreign investment since independence. Per capita GDP rivals that of Turkey or Mexico.
Nazarbayev has said the nearly $75 billion accumulated in foreign currency reserves and a National Fund for windfall oil revenues may be needed to fend off a looming economic crisis.
As a guaranteed rubber-stamp for Nazarbayev’s policies, Nur Otan is also viewed by many as the best guarantor of stability that has set Kazakhstan apart from its restive and poorer Central Asian neighbours.
The second-placed Ak Zhol party, membership of which has risen rapidly since its founder left Nur Otan last year, is expected to give a bigger voice to businessmen but share the same basic policies as the ruling party.
Alexander Mukha, a human rights activist in Aktau, said he did not expect authoritarian rule to last forever. An opposition presence in parliament, however sympathetic to the ruling party, was still a step forward, he said.
"The president’s party will still hold the vast majority of votes," he said. "But the fact that three parties finally got into the legislature after 20 years of independence is a real breakthrough for Kazakhstan."