ASTANA (Reuters) - Kazakhstan’s veteran leader Nursultan Nazarbayev celebrated his landslide re-election on Monday but Europe’s main monitoring mission said the vote was marred by irregularities and pressed for democratic reforms.
Nazarbayev, 70, has made stability his main motto in the predominantly Muslim nation, where he has overseen market reforms and more than $120 billion in foreign investment during more than two decades in power.
But Nazarbayev is challenged by critics at home and rapped by the West for his authoritarian methods. Kazakhstan has never held an election judged free or fair by international monitors.
The Central Election Commission said on Monday that Nazarbayev had won Sunday’s early presidential election with an overwhelming 95.5 percent of votes. In the previous polls in 2005, he won 91.2 percent.
By winning an election devoid of any challenge, Nazarbayev appears to have further tightened his iron grip on the vast state of 16.4 million people, where the echo of popular revolutions in the Arab world is almost inaudible.
“Of course, this turnout of almost 90 percent and more than 90 percent of your support for me is a sensation for Western states,” an upbeat and emotional Nazarbayev told thousands of mainly young supporters gathered in a sports complex.
Nazarbayev supporters waved the national flag and chanted “Nursultan! Kazakhstan!,” and “We won!.” Many wore specially printed yellow or blue T-shirts with the English logo: “I Love President!”
“We have shown that if elections usually divide a nation into various party blocs, ours has only united us; while there is bloodshed and ethnic strife in the outside world, we stand united — all ethnic groups and religions of Kazakhstan,” he said.
“If elsewhere they cut jobs and halt industrial output, we launch new factories and open new jobs; if somewhere they cut pensions, we raise them; if somewhere they cut wages, we boost them,” he said to the rapturous applause of his supporters.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), chaired last year by Kazakhstan, has stationed more than 300 observers across the country and identified pre-election concerns about transparency of the vote and media freedom.
“International observers ... noted that reforms necessary for holding genuine democratic elections have yet to materialize,” the OSCE said in a statement later on Monday.
“Regrettably we have to conclude that this election could and should have been better,” Ambassador Daan Everts, Head of the long-term election observation mission deployed by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), told a news briefing in the Kazakh capital.
“It showed the urgency of implementing the long-awaited reforms ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections.”
Nazarbayev said shortly before the OSCE made its statement that foreign observers had not found any violations of Kazakh electoral law or the constitution, and thanked them.
Nazarbayev’s landslide re-election does nothing to answer the question asked by many investors in Kazakhstan — who will eventually succeed him?
“There should be no implications for the investment universe following the elections,” said Milena Ivanova-Venturini, deputy head of global research at investment bank Renaissance Capital.
“The question of succession remains the wild card and the largest single risk to investments in Kazakhstan in the mid- to long-term.”
The president has built warm ties with giant neighbors China and Russia, whose President Dmitry Medvedev called Nazarbayev to congratulate him on his win.
Nazarbayev has said he will rule for as long as his health and his people will allow. Some analysts say he could use his next five years in office to groom a pliant successor.
Living standards in Kazakhstan are higher than elsewhere in Central Asia, a volatile region bordering Afghanistan unsettled by poverty, ethnic tensions, radical Islam and the drug trade.
Official turnout was 89.9 percent in Sunday’s election, which Nazarbayev called almost two years before his term had been due to end after rejecting a proposal for a referendum to extend his reign unchallenged until 2020.
The fragmented opposition, which was left with no with time to mobilize its forces, denounced the early election as a farce. One of the three candidates who nominally stood against Nazarbayev said he had voted for the president.
Additional reporting by Raushan Nurshayeva in Astana and Maria Gordeyeva in Almaty; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Jon Hemming