NUR-SULTAN – Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev spoke out Thursday to rebut opposition claims that the outcome of the June 9 election to choose his successor as leader of Kazakhstan is a foregone conclusion.
“Seven candidates are participating in the elections. That is a signal that political competition exists in our country. Equal conditions for electioneering have been created for all of the candidates,” Nazarbayev said during a meeting with members of the governing Nur Otan Party, Kazakh public television reported.
Nazarbayev, who stepped down in March after nearly 30 years as Kazakhstan’s all-powerful president, stressed that the candidates vying to succeed him “represent the interests of various social groups.”
Opposition leaders say that acting President Kasim-Yomart Tokayev, the candidate of Nur Otan, is assured of winning the election thanks to the backing of the entire machinery of government and the endorsement of Nazarbayev, founder of the Kazakh Republic.
Here in the capital, formerly known as Astana but renamed two months ago as Nur-Sultan in Nazarbayev’s honor, dozens of opposition activists were arrested on May 1 during an unauthorized protest that included demands for free elections.
The oil-and-gas-rich country’s largest opposition political force, the National Social-Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, said it would not take part in the June 9 elections so as not to confer legitimacy on an electoral process “without alternatives.”
Political analysts say they view most of the six people competing with Tokayev as “technical” candidates whose actual purpose is to create the impression that Kazakh voters have a real choice.
Communist Party standard-bearer Zhambil Ajmetbekov is campaigning on the theme of defending traditional Kazakh values and eschewing excessive foreign influence, especially from China.
The first woman to run for president of Kazakhstan, Daniya Yespayeva, pledges to help domestic businesses by driving down interest rates.
The only presidential hopeful seen as a genuine opponent of the government is Amirzhan Kosanov, who calls for the defense of fundamental rights and a battle against corruption.
His party, The Destiny of the Nation, has a focus on promoting Kazakh identity and the Kazakh language in a multi-ethnic society where more than half the population have Russian as their mother-tongue.
Besides defending Kazakhstan’s democratic credentials, Nazarbayev addressed rumors that he continues to run the country from behind the scenes.
“I continue working for the good of the country,” he said Thursday. “I want to emphasize that we will not permit any dual leadership in the country. We will all work for the president who is elected by the people.”
Though the 78-year-old Nazarbayev has explained his decision to abandon the presidency as aimed at making way for a “new generation,” Tokayev is 66.
Tokayev, like Nazarbayev, puts a priority on maintaining good relations with China, Kazakhstan’s No. 2 trading partner and a key customer for the country’s hydrocarbon exports.
On domestic issues, Tokayev has promised to help the poor by providing homes for some 650,000 families.