ALMATY (Reuters) - Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev was set to renew his 26-year grip on power on Sunday, offering the multi-ethnic Central Asian state economic and social stability in return for what rights groups call systematic suppression of opposition.
Nazarbayev, 74, officially titled “Leader of the Nation”, called presidential elections more than a year early in a move that could quash any speculation about a successor. He faces no real challenge from the other contenders, a low-profile Communist Party functionary and a loyal ex-regional governor.
The former steelworker has promoted market reforms and, with the help of more than $200 billion in foreign direct investment, turned his steppe nation into the second-largest economy in the former Soviet Union and No. 2 post-Soviet oil producer after Russia.
Kazakhstan has built good ties with neighboring Russia and China and developed warm relations with the United States and the European Union.
Placards exorting voters to back Nazarbayev dominate the streets of the biggest city and commercial center, Almaty.
Widely seen as a stability factor in a region that has seen past ethnic violence, Kazakhstan has been criticized by the West and human rights bodies for crackdowns on dissent. No election held here has yet been given a clean bill of health by monitors.
Most of Nazarbayev’s vocal critics have either been jailed or fled the country.
The biggest challenge to his authority to date has been a riot in the western oil town of Zhanaozen and a nearby village in 2011 where police opened fire, killing at least 15 people.
Nazarbayev, a former member of the Soviet Union’s ruling Politburo, says before launching democratic reform, he aims to build a strong state and ensure prosperity for a population including Kazakhs, Russians, Ukrainians, ethnic Germans and Tatars.
Allowed by law to be elected as many times as he wants, he has traveled extensively around the mainly Muslim nation, met by crowds of jubilant supporters.
Stressing the same mantra of stability, inter-ethnic harmony and social cohesion, he won nearly 96 percent of the vote in the previous election in April 2011.
A similar result is expected in Sunday’s vote in the country where the opposition is small and disparate and Nazarbayev’s ruling Nur Otan party controls all facets of everyday life.
(This version of the story corrects to remove reference to border with Afghanistan, third paragraph)
Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Ralph Boulton