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Kazakhstan: Presidential Challengers Struggle To Make Their Point

Zharmakhan Tuyakbai is considered Nazarbaev's leading challenger (RFE/RL) Voters in Kazakhstan head to the polls on 4 December to elect a president. With some surveys suggesting that more than 65 percent of voters plan to cast their ballots for incumbent Nursultan Nazarbaev, he is clearly the front-runner. Many voters say they want stability and economic growth, things many Kazakhs identify as Nazarbaev's strengths -- or even his personal achievements. But four other men are competing in the presidential race, too, and have struggled to offset the incumbent's 16-year head start.

Prague, 21 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, registered as a united candidate from the country's For a Just Kazakhstan opposition movement, is seen as the major rival of current President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

The next strongest opposition candidate is Alikhan Baimenov, the leader of the opposition Ak Zhol (Bright Path) party.

Also running are MP Yerasyl Abylkasymov, who was nominated from the Communist People's Party of Kazakhstan, and prominent environmentalist Mels Eleusizov, the leader of the Tabighat (Nature) movement.

Economics, Patriotism, Socialism, Environment

Zharmakhan Tuyakbai criticizes Nazarbaev's economic policies, saying the current growth is based on high oil prices and therefore is not sustainable.

He often says other economic sectors should also be developed.

"We should put an end to the economy based on one single sector -- production of raw materials," he told voters in Almaty on 25 October. "We should heal the economy, which otherwise has no future. We do make suggestions on how to develop other sectors of economy, those not based on raw materials, how to diversify economy."

By contrast, candidate Baimenov -- who is expected to come third in the election race after Nazarbaev and Tuyakbai -- appeals to patriotism to attract voters.

"Unfortunately, the government, which is temporary by nature, advances its short-term interests and sees our permanent traditional values as a secondary goals," he said during a recent campaign rally in Almaty.

Meanwhile, communist candidate Abylkasymov is running on a social-benefitst platform, attempting to secure the votes of pensioners, teachers, and doctors. At campaign rallies, his supporters have distributed T-shirts bearing the pictures of Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Abylkasymov.

Eleusizov focuses on nature protection. He opposes developing oil fields in the Caspian Sea shelf and building a nuclear-power plant on Lake Balkhash.

Skipped The Debate

All Nazarbaev's rivals criticize the incumbent's government for corruption and speak of a widening gap between the rich and poor, a note often sounded during Kazakhstan's first-ever televised pre-election debate on 17 November. All four opposition candidates participated in that event, but Nazarbaev skipped it.

Tuyakbai sought to focus voters' attention on the so-called "Kazakhgate" scandal that involves money allegedly paid to Nazarbaev by US businessperson James Giffen for lucrative oil contracts. Tuyakbai said there was no hope of ever learning the truth in the matter as long as the current regime is in power.

Baimenov endorsed Tuyakbai's accusations and said the Kazakh government had "an ostrich policy" because it chose to ignore the scandal.

Erlan Karin, a prominent political analyst in Almaty, told RFE/RL that most voters do not care about candidates' programs.

"I think people pay little attention to programs, they think it's only a document reflecting a declaration of some goals," Karin said. "But they know that in real politics, politicians are unlikely to follow declarations, including those stated in election programs."

Karin says all four challengers' programs are weak and offer little change from the current policy of Nazarbaev.

Still, there are differences. One is in the positions of Nazarbaev and his major rival, Tuyakbai, toward neighboring countries.

Speaking to RFE/RL recently, Tuyakbai singled out Uzbekistan for criticism not often heard from the present Kazakh government.

"President [Islam] Karimov, ruling Uzbekistan, should understand that if he wants to lead the people to a bright future, he should give freedom to the people," Tuyakbai said.

Tuyakbai's position on recent changes in Kyrgyzstan's leadership also differs from that of Nazarbaev. Where Nazarbaev says instability has grown in Kyrgyzstan following the March revolution there, challenger Tuyakbai has welcomed the political changes in Kyrgyzstan and expressed his support of the country's new leadership.

Many surveys show Tuyakbai likely to come second in Kazakhstan's upcoming poll.

"What makes Tuyakbai attractive is that he is a personal rival of Nazarbaev," analyst Karin said. "People are happy with the fact that there is another -- alternative -- candidate. They don't necessarily like him, and I think this is exactly the case because for many people, he still remains unknown as a politician. But it's important that he represents the other pole of Kazakhstan's political establishment."

No First-Round Winner?

Oraz Zhandosov, deputy head of Tuyakbai's election team and a co-chairman of Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path) opposition party, tells RFE/RL that surveys by his party show none of the candidates will get 50 percent in the first round if the election is fair and free. He says that means the 4 December election should lead to a run-off vote.

But Zhandosov does not predict that the election will happen that way. Instead, he predicts authorities will try to steal the vote, forcing the opposition to decide how to challenge the poll results.

"Will authorities attempt to [rig the election]?" Zhandosov said. "Of course, they will. A lot depends on whether we'll be able to confront this on the day of election. As for other actions, I think it's premature to discuss whether voters will organize mass protest demonstrations or not."

Political analyst Karin and many other experts also believe authorities will likely rig the election results.

"Post-election protest demonstrations are unavoidable," Karin says.

The government says it will conduct a free and fair poll and accept the voters' decision.

Stepped-Up Harassment

Will Kazakhstan see another "color" revolution?

The government has so far been clamping down on any signs of dissent. Reports of harassment and intimidation of opposition parties as well as media have been on rise since the election date was set last August.

Meanwhile, the European Union, the OSCE, and United States have all urged Kazakhstan's leaders to follow their pledges to hold transparent and fair presidential elections.

(Merkhat Sharipzhan, director of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, contributed to this report.)