Nursultan Nazarbayev has scored a crushing victory in Kazakhstan's one-sided presidential ballot. An exit poll estimates that the incumbent strongman has taken 97.5 percent of the vote to win a fifth consecutive term.
Sunday's exit poll showed Nazarbayev's closest competitor, Turgun Syzdykov, scoring 1.8 percent of the ballot and the third-place candidate, Abelgazy Kusainov, taking 0.63 percent. Ahead of his victory, the incumbent promised to stay the course.
"I am sure Kazakhstan's people will vote primarily for the stable development of our state and the improvement of people's lives, as well as the stability of the state and in support of the policies the country has implemented under my leadership," Nazarbayev told journalists when he cast his ballot.
Kazakhstan's constitution once limited presidents to two five-year terms, but amendments in 2007 abolished this requirement, allowing Nazarbayev the presidency for life. Rights groups say the continuity the president promises comes at the cost of systematic stifling of dissent. Elected five times now, Nazarbayev began his rule as a Soviet apparatchik in 1989, serving Moscow until the breakup of the USSR in 1991.
Nazarbayev won 95.5 percent in 2011 and 91 percent in 2005. International observers have protested those results.
The country's Central Election Commission claimed that 95 percent of Kazakhstan's 9.5 million eligible voters turned out Sunday. The CEC could present preliminary results on Monday.
Nazarbayev, who will be nearly 80 when his next chance to run again arrives, said he respected his opponents and would work with them after the election.
Sixty-eight-year-old former provincial official Syzdykov had railed against Hollywood, hamburgers, computer games and other ills of globalization. He represented the Communist People's Party of Kazakhstan.
Kusainov, 63, currently heads the national federation of trade unions. He had stood as an independent after running a campaign touching on Kazakhstan's environmental problems.
"Elections in Kazakhstan resemble political theater," Dosym Saptaev, the director of the Kazakhstan Risks Assessment Group, a think tank based in Almaty, told the news agency AFP. "The significance of the event is no more than the fact that it may well be Nazarbayev's last."
Kazakhstan - which borders Russia and is a strategic partner in President Vladimir Putin's Eurasian Econimic Union and also has close relations with neighboring China, as well as the United States, Germany and other EU countries - has never held an election deemed free and fair by international monitors.
mkg/gsw (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)