Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev secured a second term in Sunday's snap election, winning 81.31% of the vote, the central Asian nation's Central Election Commission said on Monday, citing preliminary data.
The 69-year-old former diplomat had been widely expected to extend his rule over the oil-rich nation by seven years and get a strong mandate to continue his increasingly independent foreign policy as the former Soviet republic navigates the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
Tokayev's result affirmed the sort of overwhelming personal mandate that Nursultan Nazarbayev routinely secured as he built a personality cult over five successive terms.
Tokayev, who faced a bloody outburst of unrest early this year and then moved to marginalise some of the Central Asian country's longtime powerful figures, faced little-known challengers.
Five candidates were on the ballot against Tokayev, but with a short campaign period that began in late October, they have had little opportunity to mount significant challenges.
Tokayev, apparently confident of holding a strong advantage, stayed away from a nationally televised election debate.
Voter turnout stood at 69.44%, with five other candidates scoring in the low single digits, data showed. The second most popular option picked by voters was "against everyone", with 5.8% of ballots.
Several fellow central Asian leaders congratulated Tokayev on Monday morning before the preliminary results were announced, as exit polls published earlier showed similar figures.
Kazakhstan keeps its distance from Moscow
The election for a seven-year term comes as Tokayev has taken steps to keep Kazakhstan's distance from longtime ally and dominant regional power Russia.
He pointedly said the country did not recognise the Ukrainian regions that Russia declared to be sovereign states at the outset of the conflict that began when Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February.
Kazakhstan has taken in hundreds of thousands of Russians who fled after President Vladimir Putin issued a conscription order in September.
When Tokayev became president in 2019 following the resignation of Nazarbayev, he was widely expected to continue the authoritarian course of the man who had led the resource-rich country since it gained independence from the Soviet Union.
Nazarbayev remained highly influential as head of the national security council, and the capital was renamed Nur-Sultan in his honour.
Then a wave of violence shook the country in January, when provincial protests initially sparked by a fuel price hike engulfed other cities, notably the commercial capital, Almaty, and became overtly political as demonstrators shouted “Old man out!” in reference to Nazarbayev. More than 220 people, mostly protesters, died as police harshly put down the unrest.
Amid the violence, Tokayev removed Nazarbayev from his security council post. He restored the capital's previous name of Astana, and the Parliament of Kazakhstan repealed a law granting Nazarbayev and his family immunity from prosecution.
Tokayev later pushed through reforms that included strengthening the parliament, reducing presidential powers and limiting the presidency to a single seven-year term -- meaning he could stay in office until 2029, if he wins Sunday's election.
“There may be optimism when it comes to (Tokayev's) promise to reform the political system even as concerns remain that Tokayev will ultimately prioritize his own interests -- and those of other elites -- over the cause of democratization,” analyst Temur Umarov wrote in a commentary for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Some critics have suggested that the snap election for the seven-year term is less an effort toward genuine reform than Tokayev's attempt to extend his time in office; his current term would end in 2024.
A report by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation Europe's election observation mission noted that “despite the fact that candidates started to hold meetings across the country ... the campaign thus far is low-key and has generated little interest and debate.”