Kazakhstan set to confirm veteran leader’s choice for president

June 6, 2019

ALMATY (Reuters) – Kazakhstan’s interim president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, looks set to be confirmed in the job in Sunday’s election after being hand-picked for the post by former leader Nursultan Nazarbayev who ran the country for almost three decades.

Tokayev, who took over after Nazarbayev resigned in March, is the only heavyweight candidate in the presidential election. Six others have been unfamiliar faces to most Kazakhs until launching their brief campaigns last month.

There are no opposition parties in the Kazakh parliament and Western observers have never recognized elections in Kazakhstan – which Nazarbayev used to routinely win with over 90 percent of the vote – as free and fair.

Tokayev, a 66-year-old career diplomat, is regarded by many Kazakhs as a safe pair of hands to take over the former Soviet republic, which is rich in oil resources and lies sandwiched between Russia and China. Tokayev was educated in Moscow and is a China expert.

“He can be trusted to honor contracts with oil majors, which is the most important thing,” said a Kazakh businessman with interests in the energy sector.

Although Nazarbayev, 78, resigned as president, he is set to retain sweeping powers as “Yelbasy” – head of the nation – as well as leader of the security council and of the ruling Nur Otan party. The country of 18 million people will likely see a period of continuity as long as he is alive and well.

Nazarbayev’s family, which has amassed wealth and power during his rule, is also there to stay.

Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter, Dariga, succeeded Tokayev as Senate speaker when he assumed the presidency, putting her first in line to take over in case of his resignation or death.

Businessman Timur Kulibayev, who is married to the former president’s second daughter, runs the influential Atameken business lobbying body and owns Kazakhstan’s biggest bank.

In the absence of real challengers, the election campaign has been uneventful. Citing the need to attend a meeting with fellow presidents from ex-Soviet countries, Tokayev skipped televised debates at the end of May.

He said in an interview with Russian state television this week he had no doubt he would secure a five-year term.

Public protests are rare in the tightly controlled mostly Muslim nation where social networks and online messengers are often shut down for hours on end. However, there have been a few small protest rallies since Nazarbayev’s resignation and his opponents plan to hold one on election day.

In measures likely to consolidate support for Tokayev, the government in recent months hiked public sector salaries and boosted welfare payouts – although Tokayev himself said last month the latter move sparked a wave of fake divorces aimed at making children eligible for monthly handouts.

(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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