Kazakhstan votes in snap parliamentary polls

Kazakhstan on Sunday voted in snap parliamentary polls that saw new faces on the ballot, but opposition parties still barred one year after deadly protests shook the Central Asian country.

The huge, oil-rich nation is wedged between its former Soviet master Russia and China, which is gaining status in Central Asia as an economic powerhouse.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced the early vote as part of a "modernisation" drive introduced months after protests against fuel prices erupted in January last year. They were brutally crushed and 238 people died, according to the official toll.

Tokayev, a former diplomat, was hand-picked in 2019 by his predecessor and mentor Nursultan Nazarbayev to take the helm after a nearly three-decade rule. But Tokayev purged vestiges of that era after the demonstrations.

Both Tokayev and 82-year-old Nazarbayev were seen casting their vote on Sunday morning.

Polling stations in the ex-Soviet country had closed with a turnout of 54.19 percent, according to the Election Commission.

Some 12 million people were eligible to vote in the polls.

Preliminary results are expected at 1800 GMT.

"As independent candidates are admitted, I think the electoral system is changing for the better," nurse Irina Reshetnik, 58, told AFP at a polling station in the capital Astana.

But Ernest Serikov, an 81-year-old retired professor in Kazakhstan's largest city Almaty, said he supports the president and called the elections "experimental".

Independent candidates were allowed to run for parliament for the first time in nearly 20 years, whereas the previous lower house was made up of three pro-government parties.

The threshold to enter the 98-seat legislature has been lowered to five percent and a 30 percent quota was introduced for women, young people and people with disabilities.

In total, seven parties participated in this election. Two of them were recently registered, but several opposition parties and independent candidates were banned.

During the day, food and drink were offered outside some polling stations in Almaty to celebrate the upcoming Nowruz holiday, an AFP reporter saw.

After polling stations closed, local media reported incidents of election observers prevented from overseeing the vote count while videos of alleged ballot box stuffing appeared on social media. AFP could not immediately confirm if the videos were authentic.

- 'Keep power' -

Tokayev, 69, promised to reform government institutions and in January dissolved parliament, saying early polls would "give new impetus to the modernisation".

Political scientist Dimash Alzhanov said the ruling elites remain in control of the votes, despite the changes.

"The electoral system has changed and gives the impression of choice. But in reality, the president and his administration are keeping the vote count in their hands," Alzhanov told AFP.

"Here, elections are held in order to keep power. That's what elections are in an authoritarian country," he said.

After the riots that grew out of peaceful demonstrations against a fuel price spike, Tokayev was re-elected in a snap presidential vote in November, securing a landslide win in an election criticised for lacking competition.

Inequality and corruption persist and soaring inflation is hurting the purchasing power of the population of nearly 20 million people.

In economic hub Almaty, the campaign was in full swing ahead of the vote, with candidate posters on restaurant windows, scaffolding and street lamps.

Ambiguous slogans -- like "Order is where the truth is" or "With me there is no mess" -- reflected candidates' lacklustre political platforms.

Some young voters in Almaty expressed scepticism over the changes.

"Will I take part in the elections? No, to be honest... because I hardly believe in fair elections in Kazakhstan in general," Aset Smagulov, a 21-year-old IT specialist, told AFP before the polls.

Almaty-based political analyst Andrei Chebotarev estimated that four or five parties will be presented in parliament following the election.

"Loyal parties will be present in parliament and Amanat, the presidential party, will retain the majority of seats," he told AFP.

But he added: "The diversity of parties will have an impact on the acceptance of the election results, both for the population and internationally."