By Charles Recknagel and Bruce Pannier
Prague, 8 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ballots in Sunday's Kazakh presidential elections will include four names. The heavy favorite is incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The following are profiles of the other three, as well as of the man who had been considered Nazarbayev's main challenger before being barred from contending.
Gani Kasymov, 48, is the head of Kazakhstan's Customs Committee and was a virtual unknown on the country's political scene prior to his decision to run in the presidential elections.
But in the short time Kasymov has campaigned, he has propelled himself into the number two position in polls behind Nazarbayev through flamboyant tactics.
Kasymov first caught the attention of the voters and those observing the campaigning when he gave an interview on television. In response to the host's comment that Kasymov's decision to run was reminiscent of an impulsive act by a drunken man, Kasymov told the host he probably felt he deserved a special award for the comment and proceeded to throw a vase of flowers at him. His popularity rose and afterward his behavior became more outrageous and included breaking a glass in his bare hands and appearing with provocatively dressed young women in Almaty nightclubs.
His campaign platform also attracted interest. Kasymov said the only way to get Kazakhstan out of the crisis the country is experiencing was to "establish order and discipline with a strong hand." He said his first priority if elected will be to make changes in the political system beginning with the formation of an independent parliament, a professional government and a judiciary accountable to the people. He also would institute elections for the heads of local administrations, who are currently appointed by the president. Kasymov has accused these officials of manipulating past elections to favor Nazarbayev.
Kasymov has also promised to eliminate unemployment in Kazakhstan by the year 2004 and make the country a major world superpower by the year 2006.
His support groups are something of a mystery but seem to be mainly among younger voters. He has been compared to both Russian Liberal Democratic Party head Vladimir Zhirinovsky and former Russian general, now governor of Krasnoyarsk, Aleksandr Lebed.
Kasymov has denied claims he was drawn into the race to absorb votes which otherwise would have gone to other opposition candidates. There were also claims that Kasymov would bow out of the race as the elections neared and throw his support behind Nazarbayev. Asked on January 8 if he would consider a post in the cabinet should he lose the race, Kasymov chose not to comment.
Serikbolsyn Abildin, 61, is the head of Kazakhstan's Communist Party and the only challenger to the president to be backed by a political organization.
Lack of funds have forced Abildin, who also is a teacher in an agrarian university in Almaty, to run a low-key campaign. But he has sought to win broad popular support by focusing on economic hardships experienced by many Kazakhs since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Abildin has repeatedly attacked Nazarbayev's steps toward a more free market economy by saying they, to quote, "have proven destructive for the country and tragic for the majority of Kazakhstan's population."
But he has stopped short of calling for returning to a communist economy by nationalizing private enterprises. He says instead that he favors a mixed economy allowing both private and state ownership of Kazakhstan's big businesses, while keeping some key sectors such as electricity and transport under state ownership.
In recent public remarks, Abildin said, to quote: "you are all afraid that if the Communists come, there will be nationalization of ownership. This is all anti-Communist propaganda."
Abildin has threatened to put tougher restrictions on multi-national oil companies doing business in Kazakhstan, saying that foreign investors should follow rules set by Kazakhs. He has also promised to boost spending on health care and education.
Abildin is the sole challenger to have strongly criticized Nazarbayev, saying that he believes Sunday's election will be neither free nor fair. He suggested including candidates' representatives in election commissions to ensure fairness, but the government ignored the proposal.
Correspondents say the Communist Party is the largest party in Kazakhstan after those parties supporting Nazarbayev. The party unites 48,000 people, according to its own estimates. Of these, most are pensioners.
At a congress late last year, the Communist Party urged Nazarbayev not to run for re-election, saying it would contradict the constitution because Nazarbayev has held the post of head of state for two terms.
Local opinion polls put Abildin, who has also received the backing of leaders of Kazakhstan's Workers Movement, a distant third behind Nazarbayev and fellow challenger Gani Kasymov.
Despite the polls, Abildin said Friday (Jan. 8) that his victory in the election would prove the victory of democracy in Kazakhstan.
Engels Gabbasov is a member of the upper house of Kazakhstan's parliament, who is running as an independent.
The 61-year-old senator is best known to Kazakhs for his strong support for environmental causes. He has sought to win popular backing in his presidential race by promising that if elected, he would help eliminate public health hazards and boost economic reforms.
Gabbasov's most controversial environmental proposal has been a call to close the Russian-leased Baikonur space launch center in central Kazakhstan by 2002, saying it has harmful effects on the environment and public health. He also opposes Russian military use of Kazakh test ranges, though he says he favors close political ties with Moscow otherwise.
The senator, who says most of his support comes from the rural population, has also strongly criticized the state of Kazakhstan's economy. He has said that, in his words, "industry is half dead, agriculture was pillaged and plundered, and the standard of living of the masses is bordering on poverty."
In a recent press conference in Almaty, Gabbasov told reporters current reforms have failed because they have overlooked agriculture as the traditional motor of the Kazakh economy.
"Current reforms are stalled and have no vitality because all the reforms prepared by our current reformers are alien methods for us."
Gabbasov has said that to encourage farmers he would introduce low prices for fuel and power, create a flexible system of farm subsidies and grant tax privileges to agricultural workers.
He also has said he favors restoring state monopolies over oil and gas, precious metals and the production and sale of alcohol.
In addition, Gabbasov has promised voters that he will guarantee benefits for women who have many children, provide free secondary education and vocational training for young people and maintain citizens' access to free medical treatment.
In foreign policy, the senator has said his top priority is to preserve close ties with CIS countries and with Russia in particular.
During the campaign, Gabbasov has refrained from personally criticizing Nazarbayev and has said he believes Sunday's election will be fair. He has also expressed confidence he will win the vote, though opinion polls show him in last place.
Akezhan Kazhegeldin is a rich businessman and former prime minister whose exclusion from the Kazakh presidential campaign has caused human rights groups to question the poll's fairness.
Kazhegeldin, 46, is generally considered to be Nazarbayev's strongest political rival and the only serious potential contender for the Kazakh presidency. He was barred from running for addressing the meeting of an unregistered political organization late last year. Under a law passed last May, anyone charged with even administrative offenses may not stand for elective office.
As prime minister from 1995 to 1997, Kazhegeldin presided over the sale of key Kazakh state industries to foreign companies, earning himself a reputation among foreign investors as a capable architect of economic reforms. He was widely credited with attracting large amounts of foreign capital to the country, particularly in the oil, gas, and metals sectors.
But he also initiated the sale of some power companies to foreign holders, a step which won him criticism at home from disappointed Kazakh businessmen who claimed the companies should have remained in Kazakh hands.
In 1997, Kazhegeldin came under personal attacks in the state-controlled press, questioning his integrity by alleging links with the KGB during the Soviet era. When he traveled to Switzerland for medical treatment, state papers also suggested he was physically unfit for office. Nazarbayev replaced him with a new prime minister shortly afterward.
After leaving his government post, Kazhegeldin remained an economics advisor to the president until late last year. But correspondents say that his relations with Nazarbayev were strained throughout that time and broke in October when the Kazakh parliament began debating holding early elections.
Analysts say Kazhegeldin had planned to run for president during the elections originally scheduled for December, 2000, and was angered by their advancement. The early election date pre-empted Nazarbayev's challengers by providing them only a three month campaign window.
Kazhegeldin criticized the parliamentary decision and announced his own candidacy but it was quickly nullified by a Kazakh court. The court cited his attendance at the earlier unregistered political meeting. His appeals were rejected by the Supreme Court in November.
Since then, Kazhegeldin has formed a new political group which remains unregistered. He has fallen silent on the political scene. Some analysts have speculated that he may now be seeking a political accommodation with Nazarbayev.