AQTOBE, Kazakhstan -- The small town of Embi has a mayor who -- unlike many of his counterparts around the country -- has no connection to Kazakhstan's powerful ruling party, Amanat.
Embi residents say former school director Raiymbek Musaghali -- known for his criticism of corruption among local officials -- won last month what many are calling the first real election in Kazakhstan.
Several residents told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that Musaghali also had a reputation as a hardworking and honest man "who doesn't take bribes."
Musaghali, 39, was thrust into local politics during the nationwide unrest in early January, which began with a protest over a fuel price hike in the oil-rich, Central Asian state. As in many other parts of the country, Embi residents took to the streets to condemn the price increase before the dayslong protests turned into a call for social and political reforms.
The protesters in Embi -- a town of some 13,000 in the Mughalzhar district of the northwestern Aqtobe region -- demanded that the regional government remove their unpopular mayor. And then many called for the well-liked Musaghali to become Embi's new mayor.
An election was held on March 13 with three candidates and Musaghali, running as an independent, won 81 percent of the vote over a department head in the Mughalzhar district government and a local entrepreneur.
"Musaghali has indeed been chosen by the people," said Yerqasym Qutzhanov, a member of Musaghali's election team. "In Kazakhstan, free and fair elections could only happen in villages and small cities, like Embi."
Qutzhanov says he doesn't think the Kazakh authorities would allow a similar "free" election to be held at the provincial or national level, where the positions are more powerful and the stakes higher.
Kazakhstan has never held elections deemed free and fair by Western election monitors and many officials are appointed or put in their posts through controlled elections in which "opposition" candidates are not allowed to run.
Musaghali's supporters say that during his 14 years as a school director he never ordered teachers to "voluntarily" sweep the streets ahead of important official visits or for them to subscribe to state-owned newspapers, a practice that is widespread in Central Asia.
He has also fought another notorious "tradition" that involves district authorities ordering schools to raise cash for various government projects. The money is often illegally collected from parents and teachers, a practice criticized by some as extortion.
Musaghali once even sued a deputy district chief who demanded 100,000 tenges ($210) from each school director to raise funds "for members of a panel that was visiting the district to conduct graduation exams."
The residents of Embi are expecting Musaghali to bring a similar attitude to his new position.
Exception, Not The Rule
Expectations are high for the new mayor of Embi, where plenty of problems are still waiting to be resolved, residents say.
Unemployment is a major issue, as many people go to the provincial capital, Aqtobe, and the district center, Qandyaghash, to look for work. Some work on nearby farms in order to feed their families.
Locals also complain about bad roads in the town and have asked the new mayor to repair potholes and build a new bridge to replace an old one.
"I heard that Musaghali is a responsible leader. He once asked a construction team doing repair work at his school to count each nail," taxi driver Suyindik Zhapaqov said. "We expect him to treat the town's affairs with the same sense of responsibility."
People want the mayor to take real action, says Embi resident Muqan Medetov, who told RFE/RL that he voted for Musaghali because he is known "as an official who doesn't take bribes."
Musaghali says he long supported the Kazakh government's policies but became disillusioned after working on election commissions during parliamentary and presidential votes and seeing "votes being stolen" to ensure victory for a certain candidate or the ruling party.
But Musaghali still believes that free and fair elections could one day be held all across Kazakhstan. "To win in an honest election, the candidate must have a good reputation among the people," he said.
Some experts believe Musaghali's victory in a free and fair election was a rare exception that was only possible because it occurred at a delicate time in Kazakhstan following the deadly January unrest.
"The authorities were afraid this time to brazenly violate the law as they did before [in other elections]. Obviously, they wanted to push their own candidate against Musaghali," independent lawyer Baqtyghul Qanatov said.
He says the authorities don't want strong-willed and independent-minded people like Musaghali in their ranks. They prefer "dependable people," the lawyer said, who will do as they are told.
In his new job as mayor, Musaghali is working with officials that he has challenged in the past for what he believed were unjust practices. One of Musaghali's new bosses is a deputy district chief who Musaghali sued due to the illegal collection of money, though the man was later cleared of the charges in an appeals court.
Two weeks into his new job, Musaghali says he has thus far felt no pressure from the authorities. And the winner of Kazakhstan's first "free election" is hoping it stays that way.