Little change expected despite Nursultan Nazarbayev stepping down after 30 years in power
Police detain opposition supporters during a protest calling for free and fair elections in Nur-Sultan, formerly known as Astana, on Sunday. Photograph: Igor Kovalenko/EPA
Hundreds of people have been arrested in Kazakhstan while protesting against a stage-managed election that they say will deprive them of a political voice.
Voters have been going to the polls to elect a successor to Nursultan Nazarbayev, the 78-year-old who ruled for three decades before resigning this year.
But with the last of the region’s communist-era presidents stepping aside rather than stepping down, there are concerns that Kazakhstan is yet to break free of the past. Poised to take power is Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the interim president and loyal Nazarbayev lieutenant, who is offering 18 million Kazakhs a back-to-the-future manifesto.
The 66-year-old took just over 70% of the vote, according to an exit poll published by a government-approved pollster on Sunday evening. His nearest opposition rival Amirzhan Kosanov had around 15%.
The ruling clique’s top-down imposition of Tokayev has sparked outrage. “I want to change this regime that we’ve had for 30 years,” said a young woman, speaking on condition of anonymity, during an election day demonstration in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s commercial capital.
The deputy interior minister Marat Kozhayev said three police were injured in clashes and 500 demonstrators were taken to police stations. There were no immediate reports on whether charges were being filed.
Chris Rickleton, a British journalist with Agence France-Presse, was briefly detained and sustained a black eye during his arrest.
Tokayev tried to play down the protests. It was the “people’s choice” to protest, though elections should not be a “battlefield”, he said after casting his vote in the capital, Nur-Sultan, which was called Astana until March, when Tokayev ordered that it be renamed after Nazarbayev. Scores of demonstrators were also arrested in the city on election day.
The regime has sought to present the election as a force for stability.
Some voters happily endorsed Tokayev’s pledge of continuing the policies of Nazarbayev. However, there are concerns that Nazarbayev may retain power behind the scenes, with many believing his long-term plan is to install as president his politician daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva.
“I trusted our former president for many years, and if he recommended Tokayev, I think it’s the right choice,” Irina, a retired architect who declined to give her surname, said after voting in Almaty.
The election results are expected on Monday. Opinion polls have Tokayev on more than 70% of the vote – short of the 98% landslide recorded by Nazarbayev in the last election, which, like every other vote held in Kazakhstan, was most likely to have been rigged, according to international monitors.
This elections offers voters slightly more choice than usual, seven candidates, including Kosanov, a veteran opposition leader.
“I voted for Kosanov because I’m against the government,” said 27-year-old Zhakip, dismissing rumours that the candidate had done a deal with the government to stand. This is the first time a presidential election has included a candidate with a claim to representing the opposition since 2005. But many of those yearning for change say they have found his campaign too mild-mannered.
As the regime seeks to keep a lid on dissent, pro-democracy campaigners have been harassed, assaulted and jailed, including a young man and woman who spent two weeks in prison for displaying a banner calling for a fair election at a marathon race in Almaty. The banner read: “You can’t run away from the truth.”
A campaign calling for change has also sprung up on social media, using the hashtags #qazaqkoktemi (Kazakh spring) and #menoyandim (I’ve woken up). A new movement called Wake Up, Qazaqstan has emerged from it, calling for democratic reforms.
The “wake up” theme comes from a 1909 poem written during Russian colonial rule. “Wake up, Kazakh! Think, Kazakh! Be, Kazakh!” it reads. “We are a nation that has forgotten its freedom.”
The movement is inspired by “a yearning for freedom” said Anuar Nurpeisov, an actor behind the original Instagram campaign. “This generation is tired of living under the leadership of people who grew up in the Soviet Union.”