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article imageRuling party, longtime leader back loyalist for Kazakh presidency

By Dana Rysmukhamedova (AFP)     Apr 22, 2019 in Politics

Kazakhstan's ruling party nominated a loyalist to the country's longtime leader as its presidential candidate on Tuesday, setting the stage for a smooth handover of power in the Central Asian nation.

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took over as interim president last month following the shock resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled the ex-Soviet nation for three decades.

Tokayev called a snap election for June 9, and on Tuesday a packed conference of the ruling Nur Otan party had a predictable feel as speaker after speaker praised both men and delegates gave him unanimous backing as their candidate.

Tokayev, 65, is now certain to win the snap vote, marking a rare handover of the top job in a region where local leaders usually hold on to office until death.

His anticipated victory in June will mark "an appointment" rather than a popular endorsement, according to Sergey Duvanov, an opposition-minded political commentator.

Tokayev will face mere "sparring partners" rather than genuine contenders in the vote, Duvanov told AFP via email.

A seamless transition will reassure foreign investors who have pumped money into Kazakhstan's energy sector but frustrate those calling for democratic reforms in the authoritarian state.

"I am going into the elections to continue the course of Elbasy," Tokayev said, using Nazarbayev's Kazakh title of "Leader of the Nation".

Nazarbayev had earlier guaranteed Tokayev's nomination by proposing him as candidate.

"I ask everyone to support his candidacy," Nazarbayev said at the conference in the capital Nur-Sultan, renamed from Astana in his honour following his resignation.

"I am sure he will be a worthy leader," said Nazarbayev, who retains significant powers and said he would still play a role in shaping policy.

"People need stability and confidence in tomorrow. I will continue to work in the interests of the people of Kazakhstan."

Tokayev was nominated at a packed conference of the ruling Nur Otan party
Tokayev was nominated at a packed conference of the ruling Nur Otan party
Stanislav FILIPPOV, AFP

Nazarbayev, 78, shocked the oil-rich nation in March by calling time on his presidency and allowing Tokayev to succeed him, initially on an interim basis.

But the Nur Otan conference Tuesday was a return to the choreographed Soviet-style gatherings full of enthusiastic applause and blanket praise for the leader which have been the trademark of his rule.

On several occasions, the strongman joked with his audience, telling delegates that he felt like they were "nominating me again" after particularly effusive compliments from on of the speakers.

Tokayev, he said, was a "mushel" younger than him, in a reference to the 12-year cycles that hold symbolic significance in Kazakh culture.

As the party theme tune played at the end of the conference, Nazarbayev was visibly emotional and appeared to be shedding tears.

- Growing public profile -

Nazarbayev remains the lifelong chair of Kazakhstan's powerful security council and is constitutionally designated as "Elbasy", or "Leader of the Nation."

But Tokayev's own public profile has been growing in recent weeks.

He has visited Moscow for talks with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, a close ally of Nazarbayev, as well as Uzbekistan, a key regional player.

On Monday he held talks with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea.

Tokayev's trips around the country have been widely covered by local media that has little freedom from government censorship.

One popular website featured "rare" photographs from Tokayev's youth in what appears to be an attempt to build support for an understated political figure.

Tokayev is now certain to win the June vote  marking a rare handover of the top job in a region wher...
Tokayev is now certain to win the June vote, marking a rare handover of the top job in a region where local leaders usually hold on to office until death
Stanislav FILIPPOV, AFP

But Kazakhstan's regime faces a mood of simmering protest as it prepares for what is likely to be an uncompetitive vote in a country marked by deep inequalities.

Dozens of anti-government protesters were arrested in the days after Tokayev ascended to the presidency from the senate speaker post.

More recently, at a Sunday marathon event in Almaty, two protesters were arrested and sentenced to 15 days in detention for staging an anti-government protest.

The banner they unfurled at the government-run race read: "You cannot run away from the truth. I have a choice."

Photographs of the banner were widely shared on social media.

Kazakhstan has never held a vote deemed competitive by international monitors and the victory of the ruling party's candidate is viewed as inevitable.

One likely challenger in the June vote, Mels Yelusizov, is famous for having cast his ballot for Nazarbayev, rather than himself, in a 2011 leadership contest the strongman won with 95 percent of the vote.

Nazarbayev remains the lifelong chair of Kazakhstan's powerful security council and is constitu...
Nazarbayev remains the lifelong chair of Kazakhstan's powerful security council and is constitutionally designated as "Elbasy", or "Leader of the Nation"
Stanislav FILIPPOV, AFP

Nazarbayev's daughter, 55-year-old Dariga Nazarbayeva, was elected senate leader after Tokayev's inauguration and is viewed as a potential successor to her father in the long-term.

Independent analyst Dosym Satpayev suggested in a post on Facebook Tuesday that Tokayev's nomination indicated Kazakhstan was a "gerontocracy" and that meaningful reforms are not on the cards, at least for the time being.

"The logic of recent political events is based more on the fear of losing everything than on the desire to change a lot," Satpayev wrote.

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