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Kazakhstan's Historic Election

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Astana, Kazakhstan -- The woman reporter from Moscow offered the ultimate ironic compliment to Kazakhstan as the oil-rich former Soviet Union satellite prepared to reelect the only president it's known since gaining independence 20 years ago.

"I wish," she said, when I asked if she's optimistic about the future of her own country, "that Russia was more like Kazakhstan."

Her comment came shortly before the voters of this vast and sparsely populated Central Asian country, which shares a longer border with Russia than the United States does with Canada and has recorded record economic growth since 2000, voted overwhelmingly to reelect Nursultan Nazarbayev to a fourth and almost certainly his final term as Kazakhstan's president. In 2005, running against four candidates, he got 91.2 percent of the vote.

The burly 70-year-old former steelworker and one-time Communist Party boss, who in February rejected a voter referendum that would have kept him in power until 2020 and called instead for an early election, won a five-year term by winning 95.5 percent of the vote, according to exit polls, with a turnout rate of almost 90 percent.

Nazarbayev's landslide victory over three challengers was no surprise, given his widespread popularity among Kazakhstan's 16.5 million people in the wake of steady economic growth since 2000 and his efforts to insure social and political stability in one of the world's most volatile regions. The closest of his three challengers received only 1.9 percent of the vote while a Communist Party candidate got 1.4 percent while the third candidate, an environmental activist got 1.2 percent and announced that he and his family had voted for Nazarbayev.

Nevertheless, Nazarbayev's victory lost some of the sheen that his supporters hoped for when the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which sent a 465-member team to assure the election was not rigged, announced that it did not meet international democratic standards.

"While the election was technically well administered, the absence of opposition candidates and of a vibrant political discourse resulted in a non-competitive environment," the OSCE said in a statement of preliminary findings before issuing a final report in eight weeks.

The OSCE observers cited "serious irregularities, including numerous instances of seemingly identical signatures on voter lists and several cases of ballot box stuffing" and said "there remain shortcomings inconsistent with OSCE commitments."

The OSCE criticism was a stinging rebuke, given that Nazarbayev and Kazakhstan hosted the first OSCE Summit since 1999 last November while serving as OSCE's chairman, the first former Soviet republic and first Asian country to do so.

However, the chairman of a Russian-led team that monitors elections in the former Soviet satellites, the Organization of Independent Countries (OIC), disputed the OSCE conclusion, saying that the election was fair.

Nazarbayev, who has aggressively sought recognition as an international statesman but has been criticized for stifling political dissent, turning a blind eye to corruption that even his close aides lament, and enriching his own family, dismissed such criticism after casting his ballot in this dazzling newly-created capital city.

Kazakhstan's relatively quiet election process, with its extraordinarily high turnout and lack of any violence throughout this million-square-mile country that is the size of Western Europe, stood in sharp contrast to recent political and social unrest in parts of Russia and Kyrgyzstan and other former Soviet republics, as well as Afghanistan and the countries involved in the so-called "Arab Awakening" in the Middle East.

"This election was very much about the future of Kazakhstan and giving Nazarbayev an opportunity to build up a democratic society," a Western diplomat said on background. "It was also a test of the electoral system. There will be shortcomings in the future for sure. To come to real democratic reform, they have some big steps to take."