ASTANA, Kazakhstan – A heavy turnout in Sunday's election in Kazakhstan looks set to overwhelmingly reaffirm President Nursultan Nazarbayev's domination of this oil-rich Central Asian nation.
Preliminary results will be announced early Monday, and some estimate that Nazarbayev may get over 90 percent of the vote. Early voters and 18-year-olds casting their ballot for the first time were rewarded with household goods, such as food blenders and electric kettles.
Nazarbayev, a 70-year-old former Communist party boss, has ruled Kazakhstan virtually unchallenged since the 1980s, when it was still part of the Soviet Union.
Opposition politicians refused to take part in the election, called for a boycott and described the vote as a sham. But with some 84 percent of the 9 million eligible voters casting their ballot with two hours of voting still to go, any concerns authorities may have had about a weak turnout have been quashed.
Local election monitoring activists have reported numerous violations. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's election monitoring arm has complained about a lack of transparency and competition in the vote.
Several reports surfaced of university students being pressured into voting by threats of expulsion. Hundreds of students were seen at dawn outside polling stations at the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty, which critics said showed that pressure was being applied.
"With this wretched weather, and early on a Sunday morning when you would expect students to lie in ... to see such large crowds is quite unnatural," said Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unregistered opposition Alga party.
Nazarbayev's term was to have ended in 2012, but in January he called the early election after a proposal to cancel the next two elections was ruled unconstitutional. Critics speculated he was trying to head off any popular uprising like those sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.
Relentless state propaganda and rising income levels have assured Nazarbayev's popularity over the years. Western nations have had to balance their palpable distaste for the country's slow pace of democratization with their desire to benefit from its burgeoning energy boom.
Anti-election videos proliferated online, but that grassroots approach proved little match for the slick "For Kazakhstan" get-the-vote-out campaign fronted by television personalities and pop singers.
In the freezing, wind-swept capital of Astana, voters backing Nazarbayev echoed familiar mantras of stability.
"I have performed my civic duty, I have voted for Kazakhstan," said 30-year-old security guard Bolat Salykov, quoting a government slogan.
The high turnout figures appeared especially astonishing given the low-key nature of the election campaign.
There was little electioneering around the country, and Nazarbayev has as usual dominated the daily television news headlines. The three rival candidates, all of whom openly expressed their support for Nazarbayev, have made little impact.
In a small protest outside the election commission building in Almaty, demonstrators set up their own ballot box to vote "against all." That option was last legally available in the 1999 presidential election.
Nazarbayev voted near the presidential palace in Astana, arriving with his wife and family, including billionaire son-in-law Timur Kulibayev. Members of Nazarbayev's family have accumulated vast wealth during his time in power, raising questions over transparency in the country's lucrative oil sector.
"The task of modernizing the state and society are still huge, so today's vote will determine our unity and our desire to fulfill our plans," Nazarbayev said after casting his vote.
Prime Minister Karim Masimov told The Associated Press that a strong presidential mandate would ensure the success of reforms needed to boost and diversify the oil-reliant economy.
Parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2012, but many believe they also may be brought forward to this year. Only one party, Nazarbayev's Nur Otan, is now represented in parliament.
Janez Lenarcic, director of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, said Kazakhstan will need to work before then to improve its election laws and strengthen media freedoms and the right to free assembly.
In an op-ed piece published last week in The Washington Post, Nazarbayev argued that economic prosperity should come before democracy.
"Without such strength, as we have seen repeatedly around the world, stability is put at risk and democratic reform can founder," he wrote.