NUR-SULTAN, KAZAKHSTAN - Voters headed to parliamentary polls in Kazakhstan on Sunday with the ruling party expected to score a big win and the oil-rich country's only registered opposition force boycotting the ballot.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, 67, had pledged gradual political reform in the authoritarian Central Asian nation since being eased into his post by Nursultan Nazarbayev, who called time on nearly three decades as head of state in early 2019.
But 80-year-old Nazarbayev retains powerful positions, including the chairmanship of the Nur Otan party that controls the lower house and boasts 800,000 members among a population of 19 million.
The party is expected to win a commanding majority in the lower house polls featuring four other competing parties that are viewed as proxies.
The only party that styles itself as the opposition, the National Social Democratic Party (NSDP), ruled itself out of the contest in November, calling the move a "protest" against a rigged system.
At a polling station in the capital Nur-Sultan a 50-year-old man named Nurzhan told AFP that many Kazakhs "have stopped believing in progress."
"But I still hope (things) can be better," he said, explaining his decision to head to the polls despite freezing conditions.
The ex-Soviet country has never held an election deemed free or fair by Western vote monitors.
A notable candidate on the ballot is Nazarbayev's eldest daughter, 57-year-old Dariga Nazarbayeva, who is representing Nur Otan.
Her return to politics comes just eight months after Tokayev fired her from the position of senate speaker -- a role that places the occupant second in line to the presidency.
The dismissal, which was not explained, triggered speculation over a power struggle in Kazakhstan's leadership.
But the new president regularly lavishes praise on his mentor's achievements and has pledged to continue his strategic course. The two men appeared together at a Nur Otan party congress in November.
After voting Sunday at a polling station in Nur-Sultan -- renamed in Nazarbayev's honor when he stepped down -- Tokayev said he planned to unveil new reforms before the parliament on Jan. 15.
He also pledged police would behave "within the framework of the law" after various opposition groups announced plans to protest on Sunday and rights groups said dozens of activists were arrested or fined in the build-up to the vote.
"Protest moods exist in all countries of the world, as it turns out," Tokayev said.
'Alarm' over vote transparency
The World Bank has estimated Kazakhstan's economy shrank 2.5% in 2020 as it grappled with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic -- a first year-on-year recession in two decades.
But suffocating authoritarianism has left few outlets to voice dissatisfaction with the status quo.
The NSDP faced off with the ruling party in the last three parliamentary votes, missing out on the legislature each time.
The party's decision not to participate in the upcoming elections came as France-based fugitive banker and long-time regime nemesis Mukhtar Ablyazov called on opposition activists to vote for NSDP, even as he cast doubt over its opposition credentials.
After the NSDP withdrew from the ballot, Ablyazov asked activists to campaign instead for the pro-government Ak Zhol party to undermine Nur Otan's dominance.
Late last month two opposition activists in the northeastern town of Semey were fined around $100 each by a court for distributing photocopies of Ak Zhol's leaflets.
The court said they had done so "without (Ak Zhol's) stated permission", according to verdicts seen by AFP -- one of several instances of authorities cracking down on campaigning.
The United States embassy said last month that it was "alarmed" by Kazakhstan's decision to introduce new restrictions targeting local independent observers, who documented widespread ballot stuffing during presidential elections in 2019.
Polls opened at 7:00 am and close at 8:00 pm (1400 GMT) with a state-endorsed exit poll expected late Sunday night.