Kazakhstan voted on Sunday in early elections which could see independent candidates elected as deputies, a sign of a timid democratic opening despite the persistent authoritarian reflexes of the largest country in Central Asia.
According to the Electoral Commission, 54.19% of some 12 million voters cast their ballots and the results are expected Monday morning.
A new system has been introduced for this election, with 69 deputies - out of the 98 in the Majilis, the lower house of Parliament - elected by proportional representation.
According to polls broadcast on state TV, the ruling Amanat party is in the lead with 53% of the vote and five to six parties are expected to enter parliament, compared to three currently. The 29 deputies elected by single-member ballot were not known on Sunday evening.
Because another novelty, candidates not affiliated with parties could present themselves, a first since 2004. The threshold to enter the Majilis was lowered to 5% and a quota of 30% for women, young people and people suffering from disability was introduced.
These changes have somewhat revived the ankylosed political landscape of this former Soviet republic bordering Russia and China, still marked by the deadly riots of January 2022.
Under the previous legislature, only three parties were represented. All supported President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, easily re-elected with more than 80% of the vote in November in a ballot without real competition.
"The electoral system has changed and gives the impression of choice. But in reality, the president and his administration keep the vote count in their hands," political scientist Dimach Aljanov told AFP.
"In an authoritarian country, elections are made to keep power, not to replace it," notes Mr. Aljanov.
When the polling stations closed, observers complained that they could not participate in the counting and videos of ballot box stuffing were published on social networks. AFP was unable to independently verify this information.
These elections also concerning local parliaments, take place following the constitutional reform of 2022 driven by Mr. Tokayev, in power since 2019.
The 69-year-old leader shows his desire to "continue the modernization" started last year of this country rich in natural resources.
Because strong inequalities and corruption have not disappeared and inflation, above 20%, is eating away at purchasing power.
Mr. Tokayev also broke with his mentor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, after the riots of January 2022.
These demonstrations against the high cost of living had set the country ablaze and their repression officially killed 238 people.
After a sluggish presidential campaign in November, Almaty, one of the country's two main cities, seemed to wake up timidly for these elections which coincide with the arrival of spring in this city nestled at the foot of imposing mountains.
"As independent candidates are admitted, I think the electoral system is changing for the better," said Irina Rechetnik, a nurse.
For Ernest Serikov, an 81-year-old retired professor and supporter of the president, these elections are "experimental".
On the windows of restaurants, construction barriers or lampposts, electoral posters have flowered in an anarchic way.
And the often abstruse slogans, such as "order is where the truth is", "with me, there is no mess" or even "I do not abandon the people" accompany unclear programs.
In total, seven parties are participating in this election, including two new ones registered in a short time. But several opposition parties and independent candidates remain banned.
But this abundance of candidates, with moreover two elections on the same day, can confuse some. Many voters had not made their choice on the way to the polls.
And to warm up the undecided, food and drinks were offered in front of the polling stations to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Nowruz, with music playing in the background.
For political analyst Andreï Tchebotarev, "the diversity of parties will have an impact on the acceptance of the election results, both for the population and internationally".
And "this is beneficial for power, because parties loyal (to the president) will be present in Parliament and Amanat, the presidential party, will retain the majority of seats," he told AFP.
Despite this relative openness, Mr. Tokayev has already warned that "those who sow discord in the country will be severely punished".
19/03/2023 19:52:50 - Astana (Kazakhstan) (AFP) © 2023 AFP