Voters in Kazakhstan went to the polls yesterday in snap parliamentary elections seen as a key test of authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbayev's willingness to democratize this vast, oil-rich country.
The first voters cast their ballots shortly after dawn in a poll the opposition hopes will undermine the near monopoly on power of a president who has ruled since Soviet times.
While the economy of this Central Asian country of 15 million has flourished thanks to surging commodity prices and economic reforms, authorities have yet to hold a single election deemed free and fair by Western election observers.
Officials hope this will change after constitutional reforms which were presented as creating a more level political playing field in a country that currently boasts only one opposition deputy in the lower house, or Mazhilis.
"Today is another important day in our development as an independent state," President Nazarbayev said after voting in central Astana. "For the first time we are electing deputies to the Mazhilis under the party system."
"Deputies to the Mazhilis should be elected legally, which is necessary for the strengthening of our state, peace, consensus and well-being."
But with Nazarbayev's supporters dominating the media and all levels of government, party of power Nur Otan is expected to easily win a majority of the 98 seats in the Mazhilis that were to be filled in yesterday's polls.
Two opposition parties, the independent Social-Democratic Party and the less critical Ak Zhol, are seen as having a realistic chance of securing the seven percent of votes required to enter the lower house.
But critics say the parties risk becoming a democratic fig leaf for the current regime as parliamentary minorities do not boast any significant powers.
In Astana, where the president has spent billions building a showcase capital of glitzy government buildings, the pensioners and government workers who showed up early to vote showed little interest in the opposition.
"We don't need change, they take care of us veterans," said Nur Otan voter Pyotr Boranov, 83, who received an electric kettle for being the first to vote in polling station No. 2. "The opposition doesn't respect us."
Of 12 voters polled, all said they had voted for one of five pro-presidential parties.
"Nobody is forcing us, I just prefer the president's party," said Mara Muzdubekhova, a 30-year-old civil servant.
Nazarbayev is eager to build his country's reputation in the West as part of efforts to win the chairmanship of Europe's most prestigious democracy and security body, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
However, many election observers are not expecting a perfect election.
"The vote will show us whether the glass is half full or half empty with democracy in Kazakhstan," said Klas Bergman, a spokesman for the OSCE ahead of the vote.
While 98 members of the 107 seat Mazhilis were to be selected on a proportional basis yesterday, the remainder will be appointed later by another body, the Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan.
The last polling stations were due to close at 1500 GMT with the first exit polls to follow after midnight (1800 GMT). Final results are due within five days.
With the highest proven oil reserves in the hydrocarbon-rich Caspian region, Kazakhstan has long been courted by Europe and the US, which see it as a strategic counter-weight to Russia and as an alternative to Middle Eastern energy sources.