Almaty (Kazakhstan), Jun 9 (AFP) Police in Kazakhstan arrested hundreds of opposition protesters Sunday as the country voted to elect its first new president in 30 years following the departure of historic leader Nursultan Nazarbayev. His hand-picked successor Kassym Jomart-Tokayev is a shoo-in to win the vote contested by six other candidates.
But the day was marked by the biggest protests the Central Asian country has seen in three years, as demonstrators urged a "boycott" of what they see as fixed polls. The build-up to the vote was marked by an intensifying crackdown on the opposition with courts sentencing protesters to short stays in jail and police raiding activists' homes.
The interior ministry said shortly after polls closed that around 500 people had been arrested, with deputy minister Marat Kozhayev blaming "radical elements" for holding "unsanctioned" rallies. AFP correspondents witnessed hundreds of arrests in the largest city Almaty and capital Nur-Sultan.
Two AFP journalists were among those detained in the Almaty, where police broke up a protest involving several hundred people. Protesters shouted "shame, shame, shame!" and said, "police come to the side of the people" before officers moved in on the crowd.
One AFP correspondent was taken to a police station before being released while another had video equipment confiscated by officers. 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 NGO. They were all later released.
Dimash Alzhanov, a noted civic activist and political analyst, was arrested and was still being held on Sunday evening. Four years ago Nazarbayev scored nearly 98 percent of a virtually uncontested vote where the official turnout was 95 per cent.
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. A career diplomat and interim president Tokayev, 66, is running for the ruling party with backing from authoritarian Nazarbayev, who stepped down from the presidency in March.
The 78-year-old strongman's departure shocked Kazakhs who had lived under his rule since Soviet times, but he is still expected to call the shots in the oil-rich Central Asian state of 18 million people. Tokayev's rivals in the polls included one low-key opposition figure, but none is widely known in Muslim-majority Kazakhstan.
As he voted, Tokayev told reporters in the capital that Nazarbayev was "still in power in the capacity of chairman of the security council... and other capacities". Responding to concerns about police crackdowns on protests ahead of the vote, Tokayev said Sunday that he called on law enforcement agencies "to exercise restraint." "But any serious violations of our laws, of course, will not be tolerated," he added.
Marat Sagyndykov, a 65-year-old retired civil servant said he had voted for Tokayev "in order to continue the course of the Leader of the Nation", referring to Nazarbayev's constitutionally designated status. "I think in 30 years we have had some successes. There have been negatives, too, but they exist in all countries," Sagyndykov told AFP.
Aslan Sagutdinov, a video blogger who was detained last month for holding up a blank placard at a protest, told AFP by email that he did not intend to vote. "If you vote in unfair elections you are allowing them to say they are fair," said Sagutdinov, who lives in the northwestern town of Uralsk.
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 is only one openly opposition candidate in the race, journalist Amirzhan Kosanov, who has criticised the government. However, even his criticism has been 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 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.
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