Prague, 8 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhs will go to the polls Sunday in a controversial early presidential election that is the first to be held in the former Soviet Republic since it gained independence in 1991.
Campaigning legally ended today (Friday) for the election, which had been scheduled for December 2000, but was moved up by parliament three months ago at the instigation of supporters of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Western human-rights groups have criticized the move to advance the poll, saying it pre-empts political opponents by giving them too little time to prepare effective campaigns. At the same time, the incumbent's strongest challenger, Akezhan Kazhegeldin -- a businessman and former prime minister -- has been barred from the race, all but ensuring Nazarbayev victory.
The Kazakh government prevented Kazhegeldin and another candidate from running after they were charged with attending a political meeting late last year that hadn't been sanctioned by the government. Under a law passed last May, anyone charged with administrative offenses may not stand for elected office.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has sharply criticized the government for barring the candidates and has charged it with providing unequal access to the media and intimidating voters to support Nazarbayev. The OSCE has refused to monitor the election and will not recognize its results.
Judy Thompson, OSCE mission chief in Almaty, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service in a recent interview that the organization has sent just 15 people to Kazakhstan to assess the poll in general terms.
"People have their own views on how it's going, various candidates, (and) we want to have a look at all of them and make some assessment from that. We have a very small group in our assessment mission, there are 15 people. This is not an observer mission, or there would be more people, that is why it is called an assessment mission. A decision was made by the OSCE just to send a small group."
The OSCE assessment group is due to issue a general report on the election next month.
Another human rights group, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, two days ago called the Kazakh presidential election grossly unfair. In a statement, the group said the election process has included, in its words, "coercion, threats and repression (of) opposition activists."
Nazarbayev, meanwhile, has dismissed the criticisms, saying that democracy is developing in Kazakhstan in a way consistent with its culture and circumstances.
Sunday's election will pit Nazarbayev against three challengers whom correspondents say do not have sufficient backing to pose serious threats to him. Front-runner among the challengers, according to opinion polls, is Gani Kasymov, the head of the State Customs Committee. He favors maintaining Nazarbayev's economic program, while promising to eliminate unemployment in Kazakhstan by 2004 and make the country one of the world's superpowers by 2006.
Communist Party leader Serikbolsyn Abdildin, the only challenger backed by a formal organization, favors a limited free market and reinvigorating Kazakhstan's agricultural sector. He is also the only challenger to have openly attacked the president, saying he believes this weekend's vote will be neither free nor fair.
The final candidate, Engels Gabbasov, is a member of the upper house of parliament best known for his support of environmental issues. He opposes Russia's military use of Kazakh testing sites and has called for closing down the Baikonur space launch center in 2002, saying both pose ecological hazards. But he supports close ties with Moscow and favors greater state control of the economy.
Against his challengers, Nazarbayev has launched a high-profile election campaign in which, analysts say, his unrivaled access to state media and the support of regional leaders previously chosen by the president make his victory nearly inevitable. All candidates are legally limited to just 15 minutes of campaign time on state television and 10 minutes on state radio.
Nazarbayev is basing his campaign on maintaining stability in Kazakhstan where, despite economic hardships, the average wage of some $125 a month is high compared to some other former Soviet states. He has the approval of foreign investors, who have committed billions of dollars to the country's oil, gas, and metals sectors and say his re-election would guarantee continued economic reforms.
The incumbent also claims success in keeping Kazakhstan free of the explosive ethnic tensions which have plagued many other former Soviet republics. While the country has been free of ethnic violence, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians and Germans have emigrated since independence.
Nazarbayev was the communist leader of the Kazakh Republic under the Soviet Union and became president by parliamentary affirmation in 1991. He extended his term in 1995 for another five years by a popular referendum in which there were no alternative candidates.