January 17, 2012 / 2:20 PM / 7 years ago

UPDATE 1-Kazakh opposition rejects election in modest protest

* Opposition politicians burn election papers

* Around 100 protesters gather in snowy Almaty

* Further protest planned for Jan. 28

* Foreign minister says democracy a work in progress (Adds comments by foreign minister)

By Robin Paxton and Dmitry Solovyov

ALMATY/ASTANA, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Kazakh opposition leaders set fire to copies of voting results on Tuesday in a public repudiation of a weekend election that reinforced President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s grip on power only a month after deadly clashes in a mutinous oil town.

Around 100 disgruntled voters held a peaceful protest in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, to say they did not recognise the results of the election, which was heralded by authorities in the former Soviet republic as a democratic first.

Police surrounded a snow-covered square in central Almaty where the crowd gathered, but kept a distance. There was no sign of violence. Reporters almost matched the protesters in numbers.

Nazarbayev, in power since Soviet days, cast the overwhelming victory of his Nur Otan party as an endorsement of national unity after his prized image of stability was dented by riots involving sacked oilmen in the western Mangistau region.

Two parties will join Nur Otan in parliament for the first time in 20 years of independence, a small concession to democracy in the face of growing frustration over unequal distribution of the country’s mineral wealth.

But both parties are broadly sympathetic to the government, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s observer mission said genuine opposition parties had been barred and media shackled by self-censorship.

Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov said he believed voting had been free and fair. He said the OSCE verdict was lacking in balance but that the government was willing to work with Western monitors to make the election process more transparent.

“There are some elements in society that, no matter what we do, we will not receive an adequate and balanced evaluation of elections in this country,” Kazykhanov told Reuters.

As discontent grows over tightening controls on media and the gap between rich and poor, Kazakh authorities view any protests warily after the post-election rallies in neighbouring Russia last month that drew thousands onto the streets.

In a rare provocative act, Social Democratic leaders set fire to a Nur Otan campaign poster and photocopies of election papers showing results from individual polling stations in Almaty.

“We will no longer play by the rules of those in power,” Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, a former parliamentary speaker and prosecutor-general who switched to the opposition seven years ago, told protesters huddled in the snow behind Republic Square.

Tuyakbai co-chairs the All-National Social Democratic Party, which says it was the only genuine opposition choice among seven parties on the ballot paper. It polled 1.7 percent of the vote, but is convinced the real tally was higher.

Zhanara Balgabayeva, a lawyer who joined the protest, said she believed the Social Democrats had come second to Nur Otan in every polling station in Almaty. Turnout in the city was the lowest in the country.

“I don’t see any hope in this country for my grandchildren,” said 70-year-old pensioner Maya Zhanayeva, who watched from the sidelines. She reserved her strongest words for the president. “He’s a Kazakh, but he doesn’t have a Kazakh heart.”

STABILITY UNDER THREAT?

Nazarbayev, a former steelworker, is popular among most of Kazakhstan’s 16.7 million population. His intolerance of dissent, say some, has helped foster the stability that has made the country’s economy the most successful in Central Asia.

But stability had already been upset by a series of Islamist-inspired attacks even before the clashes in the Mangistau region, where police used live rounds on crowds that set buildings ablaze in the town of Zhanaozen.

“Any excessive use of force from both sides is being thoroughly investigated,” Kazykhanov said. “There won’t be any excuse if the facts are confirmed.”

Final results published by the Central Election Commission showed Nur Otan won 81 percent of the vote. Pro-business party Ak Zhol polled 7.5 percent and the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan also squeezed across the 7 percent entry threshold.

Some protesters in Almaty said their cause was stifled by a lack of access to domestic broadcast and print media, which is largely pro-government and always pro-Nazarbayev.

“The situation would change within six months if they gave us access to the airwaves,” said Marat, a 51-year-old supporter of the Social Democrats, who declined to give his second name.

Another leader of the Social Democrats, struck from his party list for an incomplete asset declaration, said he planned to raise supporters for another rally on Jan. 28.

“Nazarbayev is leading us into a dead end, to catastrophe,” said Bolat Abilov. “This is our country, our responsibility, our fate. We are not going anywhere.”

Kazykhanov is going to Washington this month for his first official visit to the U.S. capital as foreign minister.

The U.S. State Department said it acknowledged the OSCE report that the election fell short of international standards and said it hoped Kazakhstan would follow through on its commitments to “genuine political pluralism”.

“We are building a democratic society and one should understand this is not a one-time event,” said Kazykhanov. “This is a process, and we think this process is going rather well.” (Additional reporting by Olga Orininskaya in Almaty and Raushan Nurshayeva in Astana; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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