ASTANA, Kazakhstan (AP) — Voters headed to polling stations in large numbers Sunday in the oil-rich Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan in elections that are expected to slightly broaden democratic representation in parliament's rubber-stamp lower house.
The high turnout, easily exceedingly the 70 percent mark, is perhaps more an outcome of habit than hope, however, since the legislature will likely only undergo cosmetic changes.
All the seats up for grabs in the 2007 election in the former Soviet nation's parliament were won by President Nursultan Nazarbayev's Nur Otan party. A 2009 election law gives at least two seats in the 107-member chamber to the party with the second-highest number of votes even if it does not receive the 7 percent share that is the threshold for proportional allotment of seats. Nine deputies will be nominated Monday by a presidential advisory body that represents the country's many ethnic communities.
However, opposition parties that were most likely to pose a robust challenge to Nur Otan have been either disqualified from competing or rendered largely powerless.
The pro-business Ak Zhol party, which avoids confrontation with the government, is seen as the most likely runner-up.
Prosperity and stability in Kazakhstan — mainly driven by its vast reserves of oil, gas and minerals — account for much of the support for Nur Otan and the president.
Kazakhstan is eager to boost its international image and hopes that a transition to a multiparty parliament will serve to improve its democratic credentials.
"This is a great test for us, we have more than 1,000 observers here from around the world. I am sure that the people of Kazakhstan will make the right choice for their future, for our development, and a peaceful life in our common home," Nazarbayev said after casting his ballot.
The elections are taking place in the shadow of an unusual outburst of discontent and violence.
In December, a long-term protest in the town of Zhanaozen by oil workers who had been fired after striking for better pay degenerated into clashes with police who opened fire. At least 16 people were killed, and the bloodshed set off a riot in another town where police killed one person.
Authorities said voting proceeded without incident in the town.
In the capital, Astana, voters braved 7 degree Fahrenheit (minus 14 Celsius) weather as they started casting ballots at 7 a.m. (0100 GMT). Polls were to close at 8 p.m. (1400 GMT).
Voters at a polling station in the Kazakh Drama Theater said they were confident the elections would result in continued improvements in their living standards.
"I think that those running as candidates for parliament will protect our interests, support us and increase our pensions," said 62-year-old retiree Ajan Ospanova.
The recurring theme in the run-up to the elections, as in the polls that saw Nazarbayev reconfirmed president last year with a startling 95 percent of the vote, has been stability above all else.
Any potential for unrest in Kazakhstan is of concern to the West.
Kazakhstan is becoming increasingly important as a supplier of oil and gas, and the country is key to the northern delivery route for supplies to the U.S.-led military operation in Afghanistan.
More than 9 million people are eligible to vote in Sunday's elections and turnout is expected to be high. Although popular political engagement is low, mass participation in elections is a feature that has been carried over from Soviet times.
By 6 p.m., two hours before polls closed, Central Election Commission data showed a robust 70 percent turnout nationwide, but surprisingly low figures for Astana and Almaty, where only a relatively low 30 percent had cast their ballot.
University students are regularly pressured into voting by teaching staff and government workers also face similar coercion. Gifts, such as household electrical goods, are typically handed out to first-time voters and war veterans as an additional inducement.
Election officials said no violations had been reported by early afternoon, but local independent observers from the Young Professionals Association noted a series of infringements at numerous polling stations across the country.
International observers from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe are due to give their assessment Monday. The organization has never given an election in Kazakhstan a completely clean bill of health.
Vote monitors noted numerous cases of ballot box-stuffing, voter intimidation and a lack of transparency in the 2011 presidential election.
The All-National Social-Democratic Party, or OSDP, the only genuinely robust opposition force among the seven parties in the running, also reported observing bussing of voters to several precincts in Astana and the business capital, Almaty.
OSDP had two of its most high-visibility candidates — leader Bulat Abilov and colorful media commentator Guljan Yergaliyeva — disqualified from running over alleged irregularities in their financial declarations. The party plans to hold protest meetings in several cities Tuesday, although such gatherings rarely attract large numbers.
Results will trickle in overnight and a statement is expected from election officials Monday morning.