NUR-SULTAN and SEMEY, Kazakhstan -- Interim leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on Tuesday gained a powerful endorsement from the country's former strongman as the ruling Nur Otan party unanimously nominated him as a presidential candidate for the June 9 election.
Tokayev was appointed interim president in a constitutional procedure after Kazakhstan's long-running Soviet-era leader Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down on March 19.
While Tokayev's nomination as a candidate was a foregone conclusion, Nazarbayev's vote of confidence sends a strong signal in the resource-rich Central Asian country, which has little organized political opposition.
"I have now come to a conclusion and this conclusion is the right one," Nazarbayev said after putting forward Tokayev's candidacy for the election from his Nur Otan party. "Let's elect Tokayev as president and let's support him."
Nazarbayev retains powers that ensure him continued involvement in domestic and foreign policy, and his eldest daughter, Dariga, was elected chairwoman of the Senate, the Kazakh parliament's upper chamber. That puts her next in the constitutional line of succession.
In his acceptance speech, Tokayev said he would ensure the "continuity" of his predecessor's policies, including on the economy and foreign trade.
Kazakhstan's energy-export-dependent economy has struggled to recover from a steep drop in the price of crude oil in 2014 and declines in other commodities. Western sanctions imposed on Russia for the Kremlin's involvement in eastern Ukraine have added to Kazakhstan's troubles. Net foreign direct investment halved to $3.3 billion in 2018, of which only one-third went into non-extractive sectors.
To boost economic activity, in January the government set up a direct investment fund worth $1 billion. The money is to be spent on projects with the involvement of foreign investors.
After becoming interim president, Tokayev ordered the central bank to cut its benchmark interest rate by 25 basis points to 9% to reduce the cost of mortgages for the population. The central bank justified the cut based on the "falling rate of inflation, decrease in inflationary expectations of the population, low rates of inflation in main trading partners and growth in global oil prices."
In power since 1989, before Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991, Nazarbayev imposed total control on political activity and press freedom, dismantling any organized political opposition and independent media.
Kazakhstan has never held a parliamentary or presidential election judged as "free and fair" by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In his latest re-election, Nazarbayev gained 98% of the vote on a 95% turnout in 2015, and in 2011 he garnered 95.6% on a 90% turnout, according to official results.
In announcing the election on April 9, Tokayev made a pledge to ensure a "fair, open and just" vote, but a crackdown on political speech has already marred the landscape before the official start of campaigning on May 11.
Embolden by his pledge, two pro-democracy activists unfurled a huge banner reading "You can't run away from the truth" during a traditional spring marathon on Sunday in Almaty, the country's most populous city. The banner featured hashtags #for a fair election and #I've got a choice.
The authorities acted swiftly and the same night sentenced the activists to 15 days in prison each for an unauthorized protest, provoking a storm of dissent about the election and repressive government policies on the social media. A woman taking pictures of the "flash mob," as the activists described their action, was fined.
At the party congress, Nazarbayev warned Tokayev and his fellow comrades about democratic movements.
"The statehood of our country should be held in a tight grip," Nazarbayev said.
"People are not made of one mold. There are different people among us. Some are liars. People who follow the West and want to build a democracy have always been and will still be there. We don't fail to see this."
Socioeconomic discontent is also a factor. In February, the deaths of five children from one family during a fire drew attention to the conditions of people who live in poverty. Nazarbayev ordered the government to increase monthly child benefits paid to poor families to $55 per child and increase wages for low-paid public sector workers by 30% from July.
Candidate registration ends on April 28 and the final list of hopefuls standing in the election will be made public on May 11. Only legally registered political parties and public associations can put forward candidates. Out of Kazakhstan's seven officially registered parties, only one, the National Social Democratic Party, is considered to be mildly critical of the authorities. The party intends to nominate prominent critical journalist Yermurat Bapi as its candidate.
However, Ryspek Sarsenbayev, a well-known opposition activist and brother of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbayev, the victim of an apparent assassination in 2006, is unconvinced that the authorities will allow a genuine opposition candidate to stand in the election.
"Even if Bapi is going to be allowed to submit his documents for registration, the authorities will prevent him from being registered as a candidate on various pretexts. If they allow him to stand in the election, it will mean they themselves paved the way for his victory," Sarsenbayev said. He noted that a failure to pass a Kazakh language test, despite being a Kazakh-language writer, a health condition, tax issues or a failure to collect about 120,000 signatures nationwide in support of his candidacy could be cited by authorities to disqualify him for the election.
"If it were a free and fair election, the days of the Nazarbayev system will end," Sarsenbayev said. "In order to extend their time in power, they will never carry out political reforms and adopt changes. Tokayev is not a person who favors the changes."
Ordinary voters said they would genuinely support a candidate backed by Nazarbayev in the forthcoming election. "I will vote for Tokayev, but not just any candidate proposed by Nur Otan," said Amangeldi Abibulin, a 20-year-old student in the eastern city of Semey ahead of Tokayev's official nomination.
But Nastya, 20, a barista from Semey, said: "I would like everything to stay the same and would vote for Nazarbayev again if he stood in the election."
She added: "I wouldn't vote for Tokayev, even if he is a candidate nominated by Nazarbayev because he has turned us into a laughing stock by renaming Astana as Nur-Sultan and this has sparked jokes that everyone will be given the prefix of Nur in their surnames."