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In Kazakhstan's Poll, It's Not 'Who's Gonna Win?' But 'Why Now?'

The upcoming reelection of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev is a foregone conclusion.
The race is on to see who will be the next Kazakh president and the suspense is, well, nonexistent.

With hastily called elections less than two months away, virtually nothing stands in the way of 70-year-old Nursultan Nazarbaev extending his reign as the country's only post-Soviet leader.

The few legitimate potential opponents who remain in Kazakhstan must navigate a maze of legal entanglements and regulatory snares to even register as a candidate.

Do You Speak Kazakh?

One of the biggest hurdles is a controversial Kazakh-language test that in practice is more about a candidate's political views than a test of his or her grammar.

One outspoken critic of the government, Ualikhan Qaisarov of the Azat party, has already failed the test, while another, Vladimir Kozlov, a prominent ethnic-Russian of the unregistered opposition Alga party, has pulled out because he didn't think his Kazakh would pass muster. Nazarbaev, a fluent Kazakh speaker with presumably the right political orientation, will have no such difficulties.

Other potential candidates are sure to be weeded out thanks to a law passed in 1998 that makes previous convictions, even for misdemeanors, grounds for rejection. In the run-up to the country's 1999 presidential elections, that law barred Nazarbaev's leading challenger from taking part because he attended an unsanctioned rally. New rules passed since then have tightened restrictions on public assembly even further, not that that would affect the sitting president.

For the short list of candidates who do get through the maze and register, there's just one more test: successfully taking on an incumbent who has been in office nearly two decades -- in less than a month.

Nazarbaev is genuinely popular in Kazakhstan and would likely win any election without such rules and regulations. A recent signature-gathering campaign in favor of a national referendum that would have kept him in office until 2020 -- and prevented the need for holding any election at all -- reportedly netted some 5 million supporters.

That apparent outpouring of support led Nazarbaev to tell a national television audience in January: "I have received a signal from the people: don't leave office, continue working." It was only later that he decided to nix the whole referendum idea in favor of early elections.

So, Why Right Now?

It's not surprising that Nazarbaev should choose to run again, the better question is "Why now?"

One idea might be the fact the U.S. and the European Union had expressed serious concerns about suggestions Nazarbaev be named president-for-life or that his term be extended via a referendum. This points to the possibility that the Kazakh president settled on holding early elections as the scenario that would least likely offend the West.

That Nazarbaev does not have an obvious successor in line is also worthy of consideration. A decade ago, some in Kazakhstan believed Nazarbaev's son-in-law, Rakhat Aliev -- the husband of eldest daughter Darigha Nazarbaevea -- was the heir-apparent.

But with his daughter and Aliev now divorced, Aliev has been convicted of crimes ranging from illegal financial activities to plotting to overthrow Nazarbaev and his government. He faces 40 years in prison if he ever sets foot again in Kazakhstan, and is currently in exile in Austria.

Timur Kulibaev, the husband of Nazarbaev's second daughter, was mentioned as another possible successor. But his star faded when a Swiss investigation opened last November into money-laundering allegations against him, adding to numerous stories of his vast wealth that circulate among Kazakhstan's public.

So, the fact that Nazarbaev is presently without a successor to carry on his work and protect his legacy, is seen by some as reason enough hold elections while he is still in a position to ensure a positive outcome.

Maybe Russia's Election?

Another theory ties Kazakhstan’s presidential elections to those in Russia. Whether the impending 2012 showdown for the Russian presidency between President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is real or scripted, the thought of those two running against each other has some CIS leaders worried.

Yedige Magauin, the director of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, said there's one interesting theory making the rounds these days about that, bearing in mind that Russia's elections were scheduled eight months before the original date of Kazakhstan's polls. He said that Nazarbaev could have ended up in a position where one of the two Russian contestants would have chosen him and the other might have backed another guy.

"That was allegedly one of the fears that possibly led the current regime in Kazakhstan to go ahead with this early election no matter what," Magauin said.

Nazarbaev and other CIS leaders saw what happened when Russian media launched attacks on former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev in early 2010. Bakiev was chased from power just a few weeks later.

Kazakhstan borders Russia, and Russian media is far more accessible in Kazakhstan.

Saida Kalkulova of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this article