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Little opposition seen in Sunday’s elections in Kazakhstan

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ALMATY, Kazakhstan — Sunday's parliamentary elections presumably are aimed at moving Kazakhstan toward a more open and democractic system — but some voters here aren't buying it.

"There is no real opposition in Kazakhstan. They are all puppets of [President Nursultan] Nazarbayev," said a 48-year-old taxi driver, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation. "If there was any real opposition, I would vote with pleasure, but it's totally useless."

December saw Kazakhstan's most significant unrest since breaking from the Soviet Union in 1991: At least 15 people died when police opened fire on a workers' rights protest in the city of Zhanaozen.

"They have scheduled the election because there will certainly be another wave of social unrest in Kazakhstan this year," said the taxi driver, an engineer who hasn't been able to find a job in his field. "The differences between rich and poor are growing ever bigger, and people are very unhappy."

Mr. Nazarbayev won 95 percent of the vote in April's presidential balloting — the usual outcome for elections that have kept him in power for 20 years, say analysts.

Long criticized for its lack of transparency, Kazakhstan's electon process has presented voters with little in terms of public debate or opposition to the status quo.

Parliamentary elections in 2007 saw Mr. Nazarbayev's Nur Otan party take 88 percent of the vote. No opposition party won enough votes to meet the 7 percent threshold needed to take seats in parliament.

Recent reforms have abolished the threshold: The party that wins the second-largest share of the vote Sunday will be guaranteed at least two seats.

But observers say most parties in the race back Mr. Nazarbayev. Others have had their registration for ballots refused or canceled, according to a Jan. 4 report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is monitoring the electoral process.

In addition, six of the 10 candidates for the Social Democratic-Azat Party (OSDP-Azat), which is widely seen as the only real opposition in the election, were disqualified this week on the grounds of alleged financial irregularities. They include one of party's leaders, Bulat Abilov, and Gulzhan Ergalieva, the former editor of one of Kazakhstan few opposition newspapers.

"Clearly, they were looking for an excuse to take those two out of the race," said Amirzhan Kosanov, co-chairman of OSDP-Azat. "The government has resorted to unfair and legally questionable means to prevent them being elected because they are both known for openly criticizing the government and the country's problems. And they have pressed hard for an explanation of the events in Zhanaozen."

Nonetheless, Mr. Kosanov said the party remains optimistic about its remaining candidates.

"The people are tired of only having one party in parliament; therefore, as the only real opposition party, we have a good chance of getting into parliament," he said.

 "It depends on the counting of the ballots," he added. "There might be election fraud."

Some observers say the Nazarbayev government does not need to resort to fraud to manipulate the outcome of elections.

"There are plenty of mechanisms for the presidential party to keep its position," said Bruno De Cordier, an analyst specializing in Central Asian politics at the Conflict Research Group at Ghent University in Belgium.

"There is the grip that people in the presidential family or connected to the regime have on the main media, and then there is the parallel power that the presidential party has in the civil service and among sectors that are being subsidized or funded by government," he said.

Analysts say Mr. Nazarbayev has maintained autocratic rule since 1991 via a tacit agreement with Kazakh citizens, who have exchanged democratic rights for stability and economic growth.

"Between 2000 and 2007, the economy grew almost 10 percent a year on average," said Mr. De Cordier. "That gave the establishment a lot of legitimacy, and at the same time it could buy social peace and political apathy in wide sectors of society."

That social stability now may be at risk. Economic growth has slowed amid falling oil prices and the global financial downturn, and disparities between rich and poor are widening.

"Do not underestimate the psychological impact of the Arab Spring on Central Asia," Mr. De Cordier said. "People have been watching this and thinking about their own equivalents of the regimes that were toppled in some Arab countries. And the intelligence and security agencies have been on quite high alert since then."

All this is forcing the government to demonstrate its commitment to reform, analysts say. But most agree that the changes are merely cosmetic.

"Even the government doesn't hide that they have no intention of copying Western democracies," said Lilit Gevorgyan, an analyst and IHS Global Insight in London. "I think what they are trying to do is to show that they are responding to social discontent."

"I think what we will see is something similar to the Russian parliament, a model of 'managed democracy' where smaller, 'opposition' parties do not really challenge the government," she said.

Mr. Kosanov drew a different comparison with Russia: "It's hard to see [anything changing politically here] but also in Russia, no one thought that there would be huge protests after the election."

Andrey Sviridov, of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, said there is no real democracy in Kazakhstan and the elections are as much an exercise in manipulating international opinion as that of Kazakh citizens.

"For us, the elections play hardly any role," Mr. Sviridov said. "The parties standing for election don't really differ from one another."

Ruby Russell reported from Berlin.

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