Kazakh leader headed for huge election victory, exit polls show

ALMATY, Nov 20 (Reuters) – Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev cruised to a landslide victory in snap elections on Sunday, according to exit polls, consolidating his hold on power less than a year after ousting his long-ruling predecessor Nursultan. Nazarbayev.

The former diplomat, who succeeded Nazarbayev in 2019 when the Central Asian country’s only post-Soviet ruler stepped down, split with his former patron after a January uprising in which Tokayev called for a coup attempt.

A re-election victory – polls show him winning 82% to 85% of the vote – would give Tokayev, 69, the great personal power that Nazarbayev has steadily achieved while building a cult of personality over five consecutive terms.

Nazarbayev, who has held key positions since stepping down, was killed in riots earlier this year that left 238 people dead. Tokayev forced Nazarbayev’s allies to give up other positions and renamed the capital – renamed “Nur-Sultan” in Nazarbayev’s honor – to Astana.

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Tokayev sought Russian help to quell the unrest in January, but distanced himself from Moscow by avoiding public support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Russia is Kazakhstan’s largest trading partner, and Russia’s recession has hurt its neighbor’s economy, while the ruble’s strength, boosted by capital controls, has helped push Kazakhstan’s inflation to a 14-year high.

Tokayev, a former foreign minister and deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, has overseen constitutional reforms that limit his own term in office to two terms. He has also promised to reduce income inequality by rooting out corruption and redistributing wealth more fairly in the country of 19 million people.

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Presidential elections were originally scheduled for late 2024, but were postponed after unrest in January and a subsequent constitutional referendum. Tokayev said on Sunday that he would continue to restructure the political system by calling early parliamentary elections next year. Tokayev left the ruling Amanat party this year and oversaw reforms that made it easier to establish new political parties.

Opinion polls predict none of the other five candidates will score in double digits in Sunday’s polls.

“Among the presidential candidates, I know only Tokayev, first of all,” Taimerlan Sadykov, a resident of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, said on the eve of the vote.

“Secondly, the way he has conducted himself on the international stage is very impressive.”

Another Almaty voter, a 35-year-old manager who gave only his first name as Serik, said he voted against all candidates.

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“… The powers that be must understand that we have been given no real choice,” he said.

Police detained a few dozen people in Almaty who staged a small-scale protest against the vote, according to opposition groups and local media. Police said some were released immediately, while others were charged with misdemeanors.

The Central Election Commission said 69.4% of voters had cast their ballots when polling stations closed across Kazakhstan at 9pm local time. Preliminary results of the polls are expected on Monday.

Additional reporting by Tamara Wall (Reporting by Olshas Uyezov and Maria Gordeyeva) Editing by Peter Graff, Frances Kerry, Alexander Smith and Paul Simao in Astana

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