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ASTANA (Reuters) - Nursultan Nazarbayev was heading for a virtually unchallenged victory in Kazakhstan's presidential election on Sunday, offering economic and social stability at the cost of what rights groups call systematic stifling of dissent over his 26-year rule.
Nazarbayev, 74, officially titled "Leader of the Nation", called polls more than a year early in a move that could quash any speculation about a successor.
An exit poll ordered by Civil Alliance, a Kazakh non-governmental organization, said Nazarbayev had won 97.5 percent of the vote. The Central Election Commission said it would publish its data later on Monday.
The election had promised no surprises. Upbeat and smiling, the former steelworker said he was confident of his landslide win as he voted in his futuristic capital, Astana.
"I am confident ... Kazakhstanis will vote for stability in our state, to support the policy which the country has so far been following under my leadership," he told reporters after casting his ballot at polling station No. 81.
Kazakhstan has built good ties with neighboring Russia and China as well as the United States and the European Union.
Nazarbayev has promoted market reforms and, attracting $200 billion in foreign direct investment, turned his steppe nation into the second-largest economy in the former Soviet Union and the biggest former Soviet oil producer after Russia.
"I voted for our beloved Nazarbayev, of course," said Vera Kalinina, a 68-year-old pensioner, as Kazakh songs blared from loudspeakers.
"He gave us everything - pensions, free medications, we have food. What else do we need?"
His official rivals, a low-profile Communist Party functionary and a loyal ex-regional governor, were scarcely to be seen.
Stable in a region that has been troubled by ethnic violence, from Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan, 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 was a riot in the western oil town of Zhanaozen and a nearby village in 2011 where police opened fire, killing at least 15 people.
Authorities described the unrest as an attempted coup.
"Now there is no united force which could resist today's regime," opposition activist Amirzhan Kosanov told Reuters. He said he would not vote
Dina Dosmukhanova, a 20-year-old foreign languages student who voted in Kazakhstan's financial center and biggest city, Almaty, said stability was paramount.
"There will be no revolt here - like in Ukraine, for instance."
Nazarbayev, communist chief in Soviet times, says he seeks a strong state and prosperity for a population including Kazakhs, Russians, Ukrainians, ethnic Germans and Tatars. Only then can democratic reform follow.
He won nearly 96 percent of the vote in the previous election in April 2011.
Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Additional reporting by Mariya Gordeyeva in Almaty; editing by Ralph Boulton and William Hardy