January 15, 2012 / 11:15 PM / 7 years ago

At least one new party in Kazakh assembly after riots

* Despite unrest, ruling party set for convincing win

* Second-placed party guaranteed presence in parliament

* Turnout 75 percent, exit polls predict third party

* Security tight in riot-hit town, opposition sidelined

By Dmitry Solovyov

ZHANAOZEN, Kazakhstan, Jan 16 (Reuters) - At least one new party will enter Kazakhstan’s parliament after an election that offered a small concession to democracy following deadly riots by oil workers which shook the country’s stable image built up by President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Exit polls after Sunday’s election in the vast Central Asian state put the long-serving leader’s Nur Otan party on course to win by a landslide. But they also suggested two other parties broadly sympathetic to the government, the pro-business Ak Zhol and the Communist People’s Party, could enter the lower house.

At least one of them will have seats because for the first time the second-placed party will be guaranteed representation, regardless of whether it clears the 7 percent threshold for entering the assembly. Nur Otan currently has all the seats.

Nazarbayev, 71, hailed his party’s expected victory as a sign of national unity one month after at least 16 people were killed in clashes between protesters and police in the oil town of Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan.

“The events in Zhanaozen have united us more,” Nazarbayev told members of his Nur Otan party at their headquarters. “This speaks volumes for the cohesion of Kazakhstanis and their desire to preserve stability.”

But in Zhanaozen, black-clad police carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles were out in force on Sunday, controlling streets beneath billboard images of the president as residents braved a blizzard to vote.

“I have voted for our children to have a better future, to have good jobs so that their lives become better than ours,” said oilfield machinery operator Kumlyumkos Nurgazinov, 63.

A sense of fear accompanied voters in Zhanaozen, some of whom cast their ballots at a school in the shadow of a burnt-out electronics store ransacked during the riots.

Many in the town refused to speak to reporters who were accompanied by police and officials.

Nazarbayev, who is still overwhelmingly popular in the country of 16.7 million people, overruled a decision by the constitutional council to cancel the election in Zhanaozen.

MOST CRITICAL OPPONENTS BARRED

The decision to allow parties other than Nur Otan into parliament appears designed to create a veneer of democracy and ease frustration over the unequal distribution of oil riches in the former Soviet republic ruled by Nazarbayev since 1989.

But the most critical opponents of Nazarbayev were barred from taking part and Nur Otan will continue to dominate the lower house.

Stability in Kazakhstan had been upset by a series of Islamist-inspired attacks even before the Independence Day riots in Zhanaozen, where striking oil workers sacked by state-run companies had been protesting for higher wages since May.

Politicians are even more wary in Kazakhstan after the mass protests that greeted a disputed election last month in Russia, still Kazakhstan’s biggest trading partner and a cultural reference point for its millions of Russian-speaking citizens.

Opposition politician Bolat Abilov, removed from his party list for an incomplete asset declaration, said his party was alone among the seven contenders in opposing the government.

Membership of Ak Zhol, widely expected to finish second, has risen rapidly since its founder left Nur Otan to build it into the country’s second-largest political force.

“Top-down changes are practically impossible in Kazakhstan,” said Abilov, co-chairman of the All-National Social Democratic Party. “The president, the ruling party and their circle are too convinced they are right.”

The anti-government Communist Party, which is distinct from the Communist People’s Party, is serving a six-month suspension and another critical movement, Alga!, has consistently failed to secure official registration as a political party.

CONCERNS OVER STABILITY

An exit poll by the independent Strategy foundation said Nur Otan party would win 81 percent of the vote and suggested Ak Zhol and the Communist People’s Party had just over 7 percent.

Two separate exit polls produced similar findings, and Nationwide turnout among the 9.3 million registered voters was 75 percent, the Central Election Commission said.

By rubber-stamping Nazarbayev’s policies, Nur Otan is viewed by many as the best guarantor of the stability that has set Kazakhstan apart from its restive and poorer neighbours.

“We need peace. Only Nur Otan can bring this,” said 43-year-old unemployed driver Agadzhan Tulyayev.

Kazakhstan, four times the size of Texas, holds 3 percent of global oil reserves and has attracted more than $120 billion in foreign investment in two decades of independence. It boasts per capita GDP on a par with that of Turkey or Mexico.

Nazarbayev has said the nearly $75 billion accumulated in foreign currency reserves and a National Fund for windfall oil revenues may be needed to fend off a looming economic crisis.

“The gap between rich and poor is too big. We shouldn’t have splendour and squalor side-by-side,” said Valentina, a pensioner in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital and largest city, Almaty.

Voter turnout in Almaty, at 41 percent, was the lowest in the country. Just over 53 percent voted in the capital Astana. (Additional reporting by Raushan Nurshayeva, Mariya Gordeyeva, Olga Orininskaya, Dina Teltayeva; Writing by Robin Paxton, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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