TALDY KURGAN, Kazakhstan — Before a packed audience in this southern Kazakhstan town, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai made the case for his candidacy in the Dec. 4 presidential election.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev, he said, had complete control over all branches of government and used it to enrich himself and his family while millions in this oil-rich country were mired in poverty.
“It’s time not only to change the president, but the system,” he told a rapt audience. Many of his listeners were wearing bright yellow scarves, the color of this latest attempt to unseat one of the former Soviet Union’s entrenched rulers.
“We need independent courts, a strong parliament and a president who serves a single term of five years.”
But despite having an honorable record as a chief prosecutor who refrained from getting rich and appointing relatives to cushy jobs, Mr. Tuyakbai is given almost no chance of winning — in part because censorship of the press has prevented his campaign from disseminating his story, which includes resigning as speaker of the lower house of parliament after denouncing parliamentary elections in September 2004 as a “farce.”
On one hand, Kazakhstan’s economy, fueled by exports of oil and metals, has been growing at a rate of nearly 10 percent per year for the past six years, creating booms in cities such as Almaty, the financial center, Astana, the political capital, and Atyrau, the hub of the oil industry.
On the other hand, violent repression of dissent in Uzbekistan and a rocky post-revolution government in Kyrgyzstan, both neighbors of Kazakhstan, have made many Kazakhs appreciate what foreigners take for granted here — peace and stability.
‘No war’ a plus
When they are asked why they support Mr. Nazarbayev, who at 65 is running for another seven-year term, most eligible voters in Kazakhstan reply: “Because there is no war here.”
In a typical conversation, Merlen Darmenule, 28, a court clerk, denounced the pervasive corruption that puts Kazakhstan among the most corrupt countries in the world — 122nd of 145 countries surveyed by Transparency International.
Like many others, he also expressed shock and disapproval at the first apparent political killing in Kazakhstan’s modern history, the death at home on Nov. 12 of Zamanbek Nurkadilov from three bullet wounds.
Police first suggested that he committed suicide, then stated they were not considering the possibility that the killing might have been politically motivated, even though Mr. Nurkadilov was a strong critic of Mr. Nazarbayev and had said he had “lethally compromising material” about the national leader that he intended to reveal soon.
But Mr. Darmenule, the court clerk, said he would still vote for Mr. Nazarbayev because “the country needs a strong leader to keep it together. Democracy is good for people with a full stomach.”
Mr. Nazarbayev’s broad popularity guarantees his re-election, despite his refusal to campaign or to participate in the season’s single debate with Mr. Tuyakbai and four less-known opposition candidates.
But to the exasperation of U.S. diplomats, who regularly urge him to take the high road and earn his re-election through a fair campaign and an honest vote, the president’s campaign has been riddled by even more abuses, two weeks before the vote, than they were two weeks before last year’s parliamentary elections.
Last year at this time, there was strong hope that the opposition might gain a few seats in the parliament. They didn’t.
According to foreign and local election monitors and opposition politicians, the government’s efforts to restrict Mr. Tuyakbai’s campaign have even been more heavy-handed than last year — and even than in the 1998 presidential election.
Rival wins endorsements
“Seven years ago, there was no real opposition,” said an aide to Mr. Tuyakbai. Now, in contrast, Mr. Tuyakbai’s campaign is being endorsed by several former ministers and a former central bank governor who parted with Mr. Nazarbayev because he refused to honor promises to follow his successful economic reforms with political reforms.
This year, trucks containing campaign materials have been set on fire; Mr. Tuyakbai is regularly restricted to small, out-of-the-way meeting places and forbidden from holding outdoor rallies; and his portrayal in private and state press — except a tiny, often-seized opposition press — is uniformly negative.
It is a measure of the fear pervading the country that even after the slaying of Mr. Nurkadilov, a former minister who was on the board of Mr. Tuyakbai’s organization, “For a Just Kazakhstan,” his fellow board members failed to call for a street demonstration after the government indicated it would not authorize one.
“Even at his funeral,” said opposition journalist Sergei Duvanov, who attended it, “the eulogies only mentioned his government career. No one said a word about his work in the opposition.”