The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) says voters in a Kazakh election that prolonged President Nursultan Nazarbaev's rule had a limited choice due to restrictions on freedom of expression and a lack of real opposition.
Cornelia Jonker, chief of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) election observation mission, said in a briefing in Astana on April 27 that the election the previous day, in which officials said Nazarbaev won a fifth term with 97.7 percent of the vote, lacked "credible opposition."
Victory for Nazarbaev was never in doubt, and CEC head Kuandyk Turgankulov said that voter turnout was officially 95.22 percent -- a record high for a presidential election in the country.
Nazarbaev joked about the overwhelming official numbers reported by Kazakhstan's Central Election Commission.
He said at an April 27 press briefing that he told a group of election "observers, lawmakers, and deputies from many countries" that he wanted to apologize for election figures that would be "unacceptable for super-democratic countries."
But Nazarbaev continued that there is "nothing that I could do" and that intervening in the overwhelming victory would have meant "acting in an undemocratic fashion."
He told Kazakhs that they had "demonstrated to the whole world that Kazakhstan's political culture means unity, responsibility."
But Jonker said "the incumbent and his political party dominate politics" and the "voters were not offered a genuine choice between political alternatives."
She noted that several prominent people in Kazakhstan who have criticized the government are either imprisoned or living in political asylum.
Jonker said other candidates had openly praised the alleged achievements of Nazarbaev, who she said had actively traveled around the country in his official status campaigning for the election.
The OSCE/ODIHR report said it had received reports of voters being pressured to attend campaign events and to vote for Nazarbaev and that 46 cases of ballot stuffing, instances of people voting more than once, and other serious irregularities had been registered.
Jonker added that both the media environment and freedom of expression faced "significant restrictions."
Monitors from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) dismissed Western concerns of the lack of competition and praised the election, as they often do after votes in former Soviet republics with close ties to Russia.
The head of the mission, CIS Executive Secretary Sergei Lebedev, said on April 27 that "we did not observe serious violations that could impact the outcome."
Lebedev, who was Russia's foreign intelligence chief from 2000-07, said there were "a few purely organizational issues."
Dmitry Mezentsev, the head of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization election-monitoring mission, said from Astana that the election was "transparent, free, and democratic."
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon were among the first world leaders to congratulate Nazarbaev on winning his fifth term in office.
In power for more than a quarter-century, the 74-year-old Nazarbaev has sidelined opponents and kept tight control over the media in the energy-producing Central Asian nation.
Nazarbaev's two rivals in the election were seen as pro-government figures who joined the race to present the illusion of competition.
After casting his own ballot, Nazarbaev portrayed a vote for him as a vote "for the stability of the state" and the continuation of his policies.
Critics say he has maintained power by suppressing dissent, curbing free media, and "illegally" changing the constitution.
The landslide election result and high official turnout figure will allow Nazarbaev to claim a strong mandate to lead the nation for the next five years.
But they will deepen concerns about the state of democracy in Kazakhstan and could spawn allegations of fraud.
Nazarbaev has ruled with limited opposition since before Kazakhstan gained independence in the Soviet breakup of 1991.
The former steelworker has promoted market reforms and, with the help of the sprawling steppe nation's oil and gas deposits and more than $200 billion in foreign direct investment, turned Kazakhstan into the second-largest economy in the former Soviet Union.
But many of his opponents and critics have had to leave the country, and some have been killed or died in controversial circumstances.