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Hundreds arrested as Kazakhs vote for first new leader in decades

REUTERS/Mariya Gordeyeva | Police officers detain opposition supporters during a protest against presidential election, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, June 9, 2019

Police in Kazakhstan arrested about 500 opposition protesters Sunday at presidential polls set to confirm Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as the successor to strongman veteran leader Nursultan Nazarbayev.

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Nazarbayev, who had run the oil-rich former Soviet republic for almost three decades before stepping down in March, and retains sweeping powers, hand-picked the 66-year-old diplomat to succeed him, making the outcome of the vote against challengers with little political profile all but certain.

Two exit polls published by local pollsters gave Tokayev about 70 percent of the vote.

But the day was marked by the biggest protests the Central Asian country has seen in three years, as demonstrators urged a "boycott" of what they see as fixed polls.

The build-up to the vote was marked by an intensifying crackdown on the opposition with courts sentencing protesters to short stays in jail and police raiding activists' homes.

The interior ministry said shortly after polls closed that around 500 people had been detained, with deputy minister Marat Kozhayev blaming "radical elements" for holding "unsanctioned" rallies.

F24's Nick Holdsworth reporting from Moscow

AFP correspondents in Kazakhstan’s two main cities Nur-Sultan and Almaty witnessed hundreds of arrests.

Two AFP journalists were among those detained by police in the largest city Almaty where police broke up a protest involving several hundred people.

Protesters shouted "shame, shame, shame!" and said "police come to the side of the people" before officers moved in on the crowd. 

One AFP correspondent was taken to a police station before being released while another had video equipment confiscated by police.

In Almaty, a journalist for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Petr Trotsenko, and Marius Fossum from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee rights NGO were also detained. Both were later released by police.

In Nur-Sultan, another Radio Free Europe journalist Saniya Toiken was held by police before being released.

Nazarbayev’s foreign-based political nemesis, fugitive banker Mukhtar Ablyazov had called for protests in cities across the nation on Sunday and Monday.

President's shocking departure

Tokayev is running for the ruling party with enthusiastic backing from authoritarian Nazarbayev. The 78-year-old strongman’s departure shocked Kazakhs who had lived under his rule since Soviet times but he is still expected to call the shots in the oil-rich Central Asian state of 18 million people.

Tokayev has six rivals in the polls that opened at 0100 GMT including one low-key opposition figure, but none are widely known in Muslim-majority Kazakhstan.

Tokayev, by contrast, has won endorsements from pop stars and film actors, and appears to have the weight of the state machine behind him.

Both men voted early in the capital Nur-Sultan.

After voting at around 0400 GMT at the lavish state opera house in the capital Nur-Sultan, Tokayev spoke in English with reporters, and acknowledged that Nazarbayev “was still in power in the capacity of chairman of the security council... and other capacities”.

Responding to concerns about police crackdowns on protests ahead of the vote, Tokayev pledged his administration would be “building up a dialogue with all those who support the government and those who are against the government”.

Marat Sagyndykov, a retired 65-year-old former civil servant in the largest city Almaty said he had voted for shoo-in Tokayev “in order to continue the course of the Leader of the Nation”, referring to Nazarbayev’s constitutionally designated status.

“I think in 30 years we have had some successes. There have been negatives, too, but they exist in all countries,” Sagyndykov told AFP.

Speculating on the outcome of the tightly-controlled vote, Tokayev’s campaign chief told journalists Friday that he predicted victory but without the overwhelming backing enjoyed by Nazarbayev.

“I think Tokayev will receive the support of the majority of the population, but to aspire to the figures that Nursultan Nazarbayev received would be inappropriate,” said campaign chief Maulen Ashimbayev in comments reported by Russian news agency Interfax.

One of the two Kazakh polling agencies permitted by authorities to operate in the run-up to the vote found Tokayev would win nearly 73 percent of the vote.

Four years ago Nazarbayev scored nearly 98 percent of a virtually uncontested vote where the official turnout was 95 percent.

No Kazakh vote has ever been recognised as fully democratic by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has sent more than 300 observers to monitor this election.

Transition ‘an illusion’

One of Tokayev’s first acts after taking over as interim president was to propose that the capital Astana which Nazarbayev transformed from a steppe town into a million-strong city be renamed “Nur-Sultan” in honour of his mentor.

The change went ahead without public consultation.

Ivan Sedov, a 42-year-old entrepreneur from Almaty said he had voted for Daniya Yespayeva, 58, the only woman on the ballot “in the spirit of protest...and so that no-one else votes for me.”

“I don’t support this power transition. I think it has been rushed through. There aren’t any (real) candidates to choose from,” Sedov told AFP.

There is only one openly opposition candidate in the race, journalist Amirzhan Kosanov, who has a track record of criticising the government.

However, he has come under fire for a lacklustre and tepid campaign where he has vaguely criticised the system, rather than attacking either Tokayev or his predecessor directly.

The buildup to the vote was marked by an intensifying crackdown on the opposition with courts sentencing protesters to short stays in jail and police raiding activists’ homes.

Human Rights Watch called the prospect of a genuine political transition “an illusion” and noted the persistence of rights abuses under Tokayev’s presidency.

“Kazakh authorities routinely break up peaceful protests, forcibly round up participants sometimes literally binding their hands and feet and sanction them with warnings, fines, and short-term imprisonment,” the watchdog said.

Nazarbayev’s foreign-based political nemesis, fugitive banker Mukhtar Ablyazov, called for protests in cities across the country on Sunday and Monday.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)

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