The result of yesterday's election in Kazakhstan was such a foregone conclusion that even one of the opposition candidates said he had voted for the incumbent. Official results today are expected to show a landslide majority for Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has run the country since the break-up of the Soviet Union and is accused by critics of being a dictator with a poor human rights record.
Mr Nazarbayev, 70, has high approval ratings in the steppe nation of about 16 million people, but he tolerates little dissent. Opposition politicians and journalists complain of harassment and sometimes violence used by authorities to keep them quiet.
Mr Nazarbayev also faces allegations of corruption, as members of his family have become some of the richest people in the country. No elections held in Kazakhstan have ever been judged free and fair by international monitors, but global business has been keen to court the country owing to its vast reserves of oil and gas.
In the last election, in 2005, Mr Nazarbayev won more than 90 per cent of the vote. A similar result is expected this time, with no candidates offering a real alternative platform. One of the president's three nominal challengers, the environmentalist Mels Yeleusizov, told journalists he himself had voted for Mr Nazarbayev. "He is the winner. It was kind of a sports event," he said after casting his ballot in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty. "He has won, and I shake his hand."
The constitution was changed in 2007 to allow Mr Nazarbayev to stand as many times as he likes for the job. He has also been made "Leader of the Nation", a title that means he will be able to veto legislation even when he retires. Analysts say that yesterday's election, called two years early, was meant to buy Mr Nazarbayev more time to groom a successor.
During his time in power, no other politician has built up a political profile, and there are fears in Mr Nazarbayev's circle that if he becomes ill, there could be a messy fight for power.
Mr Nazarbayev is often described by Western observers as "the best of a bad bunch" among the leaders of Central Asia, as he has at least presided over a period of economic growth for his country.
The situation in neighbouring Uzbekistan is much worse, with widespread poverty and few economic opportunities. Authorities loyal to President Islam Karimov, who, like Mr Nazarbayev, has been in power since the collapse of the Soviet Union, stand accused of torturing dissidents on a regular basis.
Nevertheless, only tiny Kyrgyzstan has experienced political upheaval in recent years, and analysts say it is unlikely that a wave of Middle East-inspired political protests will sweep the region, citing apathy and fear.
"Together we will vote for stability in our society, for friendship in our polyethnic nation, for our future and for the future of our children," Mr Nazarbayev said yesterday in Astana, the country's surreal new capital city, built largely from scratch during his reign.
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