Kazakhs went to the polls Sunday to elect their first newleader in 30 years following the departure of ex-president Nursultan Nazarbayevwith his handpicked successor set for victory.
Career diplomat and interim president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev,66, is running for the country's ruling party with enthusiastic backing fromNazarbayev, who stepped down from the presidency in March.
The 78-year-old strongman's departure shocked Kazakhs whohad lived under his rule since Soviet times but he is still expected to callthe shots in the oil-rich Central Asian state of 18 million people.
Tokayev has six rivals in the polls that open at 0100 GMTincluding one low-key opposition figure, but none are widely known inMuslim-majority Kazakhstan.
Tokayev, by contrast, has won endorsements from pop starsand film actors, and appears to have the weight of the state machine behindhim.
Speculating on the outcome of the tightly-controlled vote,Tokayev's campaign chief told journalists Friday that he predicted victory butwithout the overwhelming backing enjoyed by Nazarbayev.
"I think Tokayev will receive the support of themajority of the population, but to aspire to the figures that NursultanNazarbayev received would be inappropriate," said campaign chief MaulenAshimbayev in comments reported by Russian news agency Interfax.
One of the two Kazakh polling agencies permitted byauthorities to operate in the run-up to the vote found Tokayev would win nearly73 percent of the vote.
Four years ago Nazarbayev scored nearly 98 percent of avirtually uncontested vote where the official turnout was 95 percent.
No Kazakh vote has ever been recognised as fully democraticby the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which hassent more than 300 observers to monitor this election.
One of Tokayev's first acts after taking over as interimpresident was to propose that the capital Astana — which Nazarbayevtransformed from a steppe town into a million-strong city — be renamed"Nur-Sultan" in honour of his mentor.
The change went ahead without public consultation.
Many voters interviewed in the capital by AFP were unable toname any candidates except Tokayev.
"I will vote for him because I don't know any of theothers," said 25-year-old Asya Seitbekova, who works for a privateproduction company.
A taxi driver in Kazakhstan's largest city and formercapital Almaty, Timur Kozhabergenov, also said he would vote for Tokayev,calling him "the strongest candidate."
The 43-year-old said he preferred "gradual change. Notlike in Ukraine," where comedian Volodymyr Zelensky has recently pushedout previous president Petro Poroshenko.
"One day a stronger politician will emerge and displaceNazarbayev's clan and that person will also get my vote," he added.
There is only one openly opposition candidate in the race,journalist Amirzhan Kosanov, who has a track record of criticising thegovernment.
However, he has come under fire for a lacklustre and tepidcampaign where he has vaguely criticised the system, rather than attackingeither Tokayev or his predecessor directly.
The buildup to the vote has been marked by an intensifyingcrackdown on the opposition which has seen courts sentence protesters to shortstays in jail and police raid activists' homes.
Human Rights Watch called the prospect of a genuinepolitical transition "an illusion" and noted the persistence ofrights abuses under Tokayev's presidency.
"Kazakh authorities routinely break up peacefulprotests, forcibly round up participants — sometimes literally binding theirhands and feet — and sanction them with warnings, fines, and short-termimprisonment," the watchdog said.
Nazarbayev's foreign-based political nemesis, fugitivebanker Mukhtar Ablyazov, has called for protests in cities across the countryon Sunday and Monday.