NUR-SULTAN -- Kazakhstan's interim President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has skipped a televised debate between candidates in the country's June 9 snap presidential election, representatives said.
Instead of Toqaev, his campaign chief, Maulen Ashimbaev, took part in the televised debate on May 29.
The decision to avoid the debate is likely to fuel further criticism of the election, which government opponents say will not be free and fair and will inevitably hand Toqaev a five-year term.
Hours before the evening debate, Toqaev aide Erlan Karin and the ruling Nur-Otan party, which nominated him for the presidency, said Toqaev could not make it because he was participating in a summit of the Eurasian Economic Union (EES) that brought the heads of state of EES members Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, and Armenia to the capital, Nur-Sultan, as well as others.
Critics questioned the timing of the debate, voicing suspicion that it was arranged to give Toqaev a reason not to take part.
The candidate nominated by the Aq Zhol (Bright Path) party, Dania Espaeva, also did not take part in the debate, but was represented by Aq Zhol Chairman Azat Peruashev.
Five other candidates have said they would participate.
The snap election is a key stage in a political transition that appears to have been closely choreographed by Nursultan Nazarbaev, who resigned as president in March after 30 years in power but preserved levers of influence by remaining lifetime chairman of the country's Security Council and chairman of Nur-Otan.
No election held under Nazarbaev, 78, has been deemed by international observers to meet democratic standards.The only registered political party that casts itself as an opponent of the government has said that it will boycott the snap vote, suggesting that participating would make it a puppet of the state.