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Nazarbayev protégé wins Kazakhstan elections marred by protests

REUTERS/Mariya Gordeyeva | Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who was elected president on Sunday, walks out of a voting booth at a polling station in Kazakhstan's capital Nur-Sultan.

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the hand-picked successor of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, has won Kazakhstan's presidential election with over 70% of the vote, electoral authorities said on Monday after a vote day marred by protests.

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The victory of Tokayev, a career diplomat, was never in doubt after he received the blessing of Nazarbayev, who led the Central Asian nation for the last three decades.

Kazakhstan's Central Election Commission said Tokayev received 70.6 percent of the vote, citing the preliminary results of Sunday's vote.

His nearest challenger, opposition candidate Amirzhan Kosanov, trailed with 16.2 percent.

But the day was marked by the biggest protests the Muslim-majority country has seen in three years, as demonstrators urged a "boycott" of what they said was a fixed election.

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

The interior ministry said around 500 people were arrested on Sunday, with deputy minister Marat Kozhayev blaming "radical elements" for holding "unsanctioned" rallies.

Kazakh authorities surprised by scale of protests, says F24's regional correspondent

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

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

Aman Amanov, a protester in Almaty, asked an AFP journalist to "show this video all over the world" as the correspondent filmed him being ushered into a police van.

"You can see what is happening here. People are against this illegal election," he said. "You can see what the police are doing here!"

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

Marzhan Aspandiyarova, an activist who visited police stations in Almaty Sunday evening said that protesters who had been held for over 12 hours had not been fed, while most had been denied access to their mobile phones.

"We have seen some first aid vehicles arrive at one district and colleagues say the same is happening in other districts. This suggests the condition of the detainees is worsening," Aspandiyarova told AFP.

Journalists for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and an independent local news site were also arrested, as was a representative of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee rights group and a local political analyst.

They were all later released.

Nazarbayev 'still in power'

Nazarbayev's announcement in March that he was stepping down from the presidency and naming Tokayev interim leader shocked Kazakhs who had lived under his rule since Soviet times.

But the 78-year-old, who turned the country of 18 million people into an energy powerhouse while governing with little tolerance for opposition, is still expected to call the shots from behind the scenes.

As he voted, Tokayev told reporters in the capital Nur-Sultan that Nazarbayev was "still in power in the capacity of chairman of the security council [...] and other capacities".

In Nur-Sultan, a 31-year-old woman who gave her first name Meiramgul, admitted that she only knew Tokayev and was still deciding whether or not she would vote.

"I don't think my vote will count for anything," she told AFP.

Turnout in the election was around 77 percent, the Central Election Commission said earlier in the day.

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 sent more than 300 observers to monitor this election.

One of Tokayev's first acts 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.

There was only one candidate who was openly in opposition in Sunday's race.

Journalist Amirzhan Kosanov has criticised the government, but even these rebukes were vague, rather than directly attacking either Tokayev or Nazarbayev.

Human Rights Watch called the prospect of a genuine political transition "an illusion" and noted the persistence of rights abuses under Tokayev's interim presidency.

"Kazakh authorities routinely break up peaceful protests, forcibly round up participants... and sanction them with warnings, fines, and short-term imprisonment," the watchdog said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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