By Jim Heintz
Astana, Kazakhstan — Opposition leaders in Kazakhstan said Monday that the overwhelming re-election of President Nursultan Nazarbayev should be declared invalid, and foreign observers said the balloting did not meet international standards.
Nazarbayev, who has ruled the oil-rich country since Soviet times, won 91 percent of the vote in Sunday’s elections, the Central Elections Commission said.
His closest challenger, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, received 6.64 percent, while Alikhan Baimenov came in third with 1.65 percent. Seventy-seven percent of registered voters cast ballots, the commission said.
Nazarbayev told about 10,000 flag-waving students gathered in an Astana sports center that his election was a victory for the country, for all Kazakhs. “The people have positively evaluated my 14 years of rule since Kazakhstan won independence,” he said.
Tuyakbai, speaking at a news conference in Almaty, called the vote “the height of unfairness and injustice.”
“We will take all necessary measures to appeal the results released by the Central Election Commission and declare the vote illegitimate,” he said. “We reserve the right to stage public protests, but we take into consideration the possible response from the authorities and we don’t want innocent blood being spilled.”
Bolat Abilov, campaign chief for Tuyakbai, said late Sunday that Tuyakbai observers saw many violations, including people being excluded from voter lists and some voters being ordered to cast ballots for Nazarbayev.
Tuyakbai said if the count had been fair, he and Nazarbayev would have gone into a second round, but he didn’t give any figures.
A mission led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the vote did not meet international standards for democratic elections.
“Regrettably, despite some efforts which were undertaken to improve the process, the authorities did not exhibit sufficient political will to hold a genuinely good election,” said Bruce George, co-ordinator for observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe and the European Parliament.
The observers criticized the campaign, including authorities’ allegations that the opposition planned violent protests after the vote, which they said had raised tensions. They alleged that “persistent and numerous cases of intimidation by the authorities” during the campaign had “limited the possibility for a meaningful competition.”
A group of observers from the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States called the balloting was “free and open.” President Vladimir Putin telephoned Nazarbayev to congratulate him on his victory.
Nazarbayev, who has ruled for 16 years, often shows an authoritarian streak, and opposition candidates claim their campaigns were hindered by the theft of campaign materials, seizure of newspapers backing them and denial of attractive sites to hold rallies. Nazarbayev’s two previous election victories were widely criticized as undemocratic.
In his speech Monday, he pledged to use his seven-year term to double salaries and pensions.
“In seven years, the country’s economy will double and we will be on the level of Eastern European countries in terms of per capita income,” Nazarbayev said.
He later told reporters that Kazakhs had thrown their support behind “peace and development.”
“It’s not about revolution but evolution,” he said, contrasting Kazakhstan’s vote to the election-sparked uprisings that have swept away long-standing leaders in the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
“No revolution has solved people’s immediate needs, but instead has thrown them backward.”
Three exit polls announced earlier Monday had given Nazarbayev more than 80 percent of the vote. The Washington-based International Republican Institute announced another poll later Monday showing that Nazarbayev had won 83.2 percent to Tuyakbai’s 9.9 percent. That poll surveyed 23,780 people at 283 polling stations throughout the country.
The exit polls suggested that Nazarbayev had won a less overwhelming victory than the official results indicated, and the opposition was taken aback by the election commission’s announcement.
George said that discrepancies between the official results and exit polls, which showed a somewhat lower showing for Nazarbayev, did not necessarily signal fraud.
Noting that exit polling is not an exact science, he said, “on the evidence so far, I wouldn’t get alarmed.”
Kazakhstan, the world’s ninth-largest country by area, has vast oil and gas reserves that are a potential alternative to Middle East petroleum, and its stability matters greatly to the United States and Western Europe. The country borders both Russia and China.
Under Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan has maneuvered between Washington, Moscow and Beijing. With Russia and China, it is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that has called for U.S. bases in the region to be closed. At the same time, a small Kazakh contingent is part of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.
Nazarbayev, who has led the nation of 15 million since 1989 when it was still part of the Soviet Union, is widely admired for his economic reforms, in contrast to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, also led by Soviet-era presidents.
Kazakhstan’s economy has grown by some 75 percent over the past seven years, and per capita gross national income is about $2,250, about five times higher than neighboring Uzbekistan’s.
Associated Press reporters Bagila Bukharbayeva in Almaty and Kadyr Toktogulov in Astana contributed to this report.