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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 December 2005, 14:05 GMT
Q&A: Kazakhstan votes

Voters in the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev is widely expected to be re-elected without much difficulty, as opposition forces struggle in the face of a clamp-down on their activities.

What are the key issues?

The president himself: Kazakhstan's only ruler since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and the country's last Soviet-era leader, Mr Nazarbayev has concentrated power in his own hands and those of his close relatives.

He insists Kazakhstan needs a strong presidency and is not yet ready for Western-style democracy.

The economy: Recent high growth rates, fuelled largely by oil exports and economic reform, may explain why there appears to be little appetite for change.

Critics accuse Mr Nazarbayev and his government of allowing corruption to flourish unchecked. There are fears that this, together with a lack of political reform, could harm economic prospects.

Stability: Mr Nazarbayev's supporters praise him for holding an ethnically diverse society together since independence. And they predict economic chaos if dramatic political change were to sweep the country.

International attention: Kazakhstan is set to reap the benefits of its large oil reserves and its strategic location. Moscow, Washington and Beijing are lining up to do business.

Will the vote be fair?

The track record is not promising. Western observers described the 2004 elections as flawed and the opposition alleged widespread vote rigging.

While the country is seen as relatively free by Central Asian standards, fear of a Kazakh version of the recent revolutions in some former Soviet republics has led the authorities to crack down on dissent.

Police have raided the offices of opposition papers and political groups and harassed protesters.

Meanwhile, the authorities have repeatedly warned opposition groups against attempts to "destabilise" Kazakhstan.

The run-up to the election has also been overshadowed by the death of opposition figure Zamanbek Nurkadilov - a fierce critic of the president - in what the opposition say are mysterious circumstances.

More than 600 foreign observers are monitoring the election, with the European security body OSCE sending 440.

Who is standing?

Nursultan Nazarbayev: A former steel worker, Mr Nazarbayev, 65, has held power since being appointed Communist Party chief of the then Soviet republic in 1989.

He won his latest seven-year term in office in 1999 with almost 80 % of the vote.

Mr Nazarbayev is widely credited for Kazakhstan's recent economic boom, and remains broadly popular.

He has made welfare spending the key plank of his campaign, helped by the fact that economic prosperity has allowed a massive increase in spending on social programmes and education.

Mr Nazarbayev's party, Otan (Fatherland), holds 44 seats in parliament, out of a total of 77. He has refused to take part in live TV debates with the other candidates.

Zharmakhan Tuyakbai: The candidate of the opposition For a Fair Kazakhstan, Mr Tuyakbai is Mr Nazarbayev's strongest challenger.

Mr Tuyakbai, 58, was parliament's Speaker until he resigned in protest at alleged vote-rigging in the 2004 parliamentary election.

His election manifesto harshly criticises the government for its record on corruption; wants the president's powers reduced; and advocates closer ties with Europe.

Alikhan Baimenov: The candidate of the opposition party Ak Zhol (Bright Road), which gained 12% of the vote in the last parliamentary election but won only a single seat.

Before joining the opposition in 2001, Mr Baimenov, 46, was a key player in the government, serving as presidential chief of staff and labour minister.

His manifesto promises to combat corruption, develop democracy, curb the president's powers, liberalise the economy and improve social benefits.

Mels Yeleusizov: The leader of the environmentalist Tabigat (Nature) movement, Mr Yeleusizov, 45, is running as an independent.

His programme focuses on environmental issues, and in the past Mr Yeleusizov has opposed developing oil fields in the Caspian Sea and building a nuclear power plant on Lake Balkhash.

Yerasyl Abylkasymov: The candidate of the Communist People's Party of Kazakhstan, a breakaway group from the opposition Communist Party of Kazakhstan.

Mr Abylkasymov, 57, has put the interests of pensioners and public sector workers at the heart of his campaign. His supporters have been handing out T-shirts showing Mr Abylkasymov with Che Guevara.

How does the vote work?

To be elected president, a candidate must win 50% of the vote.

If no candidate achieves this in the first round, a run-off between the two leading candidates must be held within two months.

Under a 1995 constitutional change, the president is elected for a seven-year term, and can serve for no more than two consecutive terms.

Polls open at 0700 on Sunday (0100 GMT) and close at 2000 (1400 GMT). Electronic voting will be offered in towns and cities, but the electorate there will still be given the alternative of voting by paper ballot.

What do the opinion polls say?

They are contradicting each other. A poll quoted by the official Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency suggested President Nazarbayev would be re-elected with a whopping 78% of the vote.

But opposition paper Svoboda Slova has published a poll which put Mr Nazarbayev neck-and-neck with opposition candidate Zharmakhan Tuyakbai on about 40%.

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