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Strongman Wins Landslide in Disputed Poll
By Sergei Blagov, IPS, 11 January 1999
MOSCOW, Jan 11 (IPS) - Kazakhstan's strongman Ursultan Nazarbayev won his country's first multiparty elections with ease on Sunday, when 78 percent of voters opted to give him another seven years as president.
There had been few doubts, however, that Nazarbayev (58) - whose critics compare him to Indonesia's former dictator Suharto - would win the controversial election.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), of which Kazakhstan is a member, had said in advance that it would not recognise the polls' results since it felt that basic rules of democracy had been violated.
The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement that: "Coercion, threats and the repression of opposition activists have characterised the presidential election campaign in Kazakhstan, and the way the government has twisted arms in this campaign should leave no illusions about what kind of leader Nazarbayev really is."
These presidential elections have been "blatantly unfair," said Holly Cartner, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division.
But the president dismissed the criticisms. "The will of Kazakhstan's people is the most important for me," said Nazarbayev, who described the elections as a "historical event".
The former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan is a country of some 2.7 million square kilometers, a vast tract of empty steppe which stretches from the Caspian Sea to China.
A former metal worker and Soviet Communist party cadre, Nazarbayev started his rule a decade ago as Kazakhstan's Communist Party chief under Soviet rule. Now he is preparing to steer the country into the next century.
There was no minimum turnout required after constitutional changes last spring: the opposition could not even resort to a boycott as, theoretically, Nazarbayev could get himself re-elected with his own vote alone.
However, up to 86 percent of Kazakhstan's 7.5 million voters actually went to the some 10,000 polling booths.
Technically, all former Soviet states in Central Asian are ruled through democratic institutions, but that is rarely the case in practice, said Oleg Ostroukhov, senior researcher of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, a Moscow- based think-tank.
In an attempt to turn Kazakhstan into a new Asian 'tiger,' Nazarbayev relies on autocratic style, a sort of East Asian type of government, Ostroukhov told IPS.
Nazarbayev's critics argue that his rule has taken on the flavour of former President Suharto's in Indonesia.
According to human rights groups, editors of state-owned media outlets impose direct censorship, in particular to enforce a taboo on any criticism of the president or his policies. Unrivalled access to the media -including the state television channel run by Nazarbayev's daughter - and influence over local leaders, whom he himself appoints, underscores the comparison.
Parliament, which consists of two chambers, the Mazhilis or lower house and the Senate - the upper chamber - is tame. But Nazarbayev's firm grip on power seems to exclude Indonesia-style riots in the republic of some 16 million.
Paradoxically, Nazarbayev, who had begun his rule by becoming head of the Kazakh Communist party in 1989, was said to be behind the harassment by the police of local Communist party activists.
Communist party chief Serikbolsyn Abdildin, 61, who placed second in Sunday's presidential race with just about 13 per cent of the vote, claimed that Nazarbayev's policies had tragic consequences for millions of people in Kazakhstan.
Gani Kasymov, state customs chief and no. 3 candidate, based his campaign on bizarre behaviour like throwing a vase of flowers at a television presenter and crushing a glass with his bare hands, which earned him just 4 per cent of the votes.
All presidential candidates had to pass a Kazakh-language exam and submit a certificate attesting to their psychological health.
Given all the circumstances, Nazarbayev risked virtually nothing in the election.
The controversy over the poll began in October 1997 when Nazarbayev decided to bring forward the election by nearly a year, further minimising the already slim chances of potential contenders.
The critics argued that calling presidential elections for Jan 10 violated Kazakh law by altering the results of a 1995 referendum which had set elections for October 2000. According to the Kazakh Constitution, only another referendum can overturn such provisions.
The Oct. 8 decision by parliament left only a limited time for potential candidates to surmount the barriers to registration.
Furthermore, legislation passed in May banning individuals with administrative sentences from standing for office blocked the candidacies of at least three opposition activists, including former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin.
All three had been sanctioned for participating in unauthorised political meetings (technically, even wrong parking would have been enough to disqualify them).
Kazhegeldin, 47, a successful businessman before his appointment as prime minister, had been in charge of Kazakhstan's reformist government from October 1994 to October 1997.
His government had managed to stamp out inflation, stabilise the tenge - national currency -, win investors' trust and further liberalise the unwieldy economy inherited from Soviet times.
But Kazhegeldin's policy of selling state-run oil companies to overseas firms was believed to have met with opposition from the Kazakh Soviet-era elite.
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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