The date for Kazakhstan's snap presidential election has been set for April 3 after amendments to the constitution and electoral law were rushed through parliament.
Incumbent leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, who on January 31 proposed pushing the presidential vote forward by nearly two years, has yet to confirm that he will run.
The snap election is the outcome  of a referendum campaign, launched in December that would have extended Nazarbayev's term to 2020. Prior to rejecting the referendum idea and embracing an early election, the septuagenarian president said  that he "understood the signal of the people – not to leave my post, to continue working."
It is widely considered a formality, then, that the pro-presidential Nur Otan Party will re-nominate Nazarbayev during a February 11 congress. Analysts also consider it a foregone conclusion that Nazarbayev will win reelection.
The election campaign may prove more intriguing than the vote's outcome, some observers suggest. "It will be interesting if, in the current election campaign, they start to run some 'dark horses' from among whom some so-called [potential] successors could emerge," Almaty-based analyst Dosym Satpayev told the Svoboda Slova newspaper in an interview published February 3.
Nazarbayev has already been in office for two decades and shows no public sign of grooming a successor in the hopes of ensuring a smooth transition of power. The early election could be a move in that direction, Satpayev noted. "If this year Nazarbayev finally starts putting in place a blueprint for the succession of power, then this campaign will be justified, but if it again proceeds as a spectacle, then it will be another waste of time and money," he said.
So far, three little-known challengers, described by pundits as stalking horses, have submitted formal applications to run for the presidency: The three contenders are: Musagali Duambekov, the leader of the For a Green Planet movement; entrepreneur Salim Oten; and Senator Ualikhan Kaysarov.
The most prominent opposition candidate likely to run is a co-leader  of the OSDP Azat Party, Bolat Abilov. Two other candidates – Zhasaral Kuanyshalin, leader of the Zhasa, Azattyk! (Long Live Freedom!) movement, and environmentalist Mels Eleusizov – have also expressed an intention to run. The opposition Communist Party of Kazakhstan is boycotting the vote. Another opposition leader, the Ak Zhol Party's Alikhan Baymenov, has said he will not run due to the compressed timeframe for campaigning.
One virulent critic of the president, the leader of the unregistered Alga! DVK party Vladimir Kozlov , has backtracked on his intention (announced last year) to mount a presidential bid. Kozlov says he does not have time to prepare for the Kazakh-language test that presidential candidates must pass, an illustration of how the snap election has wrong-footed the opposition. Meanwhile, Kaysarov, the senator and aspiring presidential candidate, failed his language test on February 8, but he is disputing the result.
In terms of the election's outcome, Nazarbayev is widely favored to win in a landslide.
"An early election is no risk to the president," said Rico Isaacs, a lecturer in International Studies at the UK's Oxford Brookes University and an expert on Kazakh politics. "He will win, and elements of the state apparatus will ensure that, while there are no strong alternative candidates capable of wrestling the presidency from him. Moreover, Nazarbayev continues to have genuine popular and public appeal."
With the result virtually assured, experts seem most interested in determining why Nazarbayev called an early vote. "It seems likely that Nazarbayev has called an early election so as to capitalize on the momentum of the referendum campaign," Anna Walker, a Central Asia analyst at London-based Control Risks consultancy, told EurasiaNet.org. "Having apparently won the support of such a large proportion of the electorate during that [referendum] campaign, bringing the election forward can be seen as a logical step."
In the face of unusually sharp criticism from the West over the referendum bid, the early election gambit also appears designed to burnish the president's democratic credentials, Walker added: "Nazarbayev and his allies both avoid the Western (and particularly US) criticism that would have inevitably followed a decision to push forward with the referendum, and can claim to be observing democratic norms by holding an election."
Kazakhstan has never held a vote judged free and fair by international observers, but set against the background of the abandoned referendum, the snap election helps put more of a shine on Kazakhstan's democratic veneer, analysts say. "By calling an early election Nazarbayev comes across as the reasoned, pragmatic politician who deep down is committed to democracy in Kazakhstan, albeit a democracy in which he is always guaranteed victory," Isaacs told EurasiaNet.org.
Kazakhstani leaders have portrayed the process that began with the referendum drive and culminated with the decision to call an early presidential vote as spontaneous. Many experts question this scenario.
"I'm skeptical that the referendum was genuinely a popular initiative, although the way in which the campaign was pursued might not have panned out in quite the way the authorities intended," Walker said. "It is possible that they misjudged the level of criticism from the United States, and were concerned at the diplomatic consequences if they went ahead – including the tarnishing of Nazarbayev's reputation as an international statesman."
In recent months the administration has been painstakingly polishing the president's image at home. It used Kazakhstan's 2010 chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe  (OSCE) and the country's hosting of an OSCE summit last December, along with hosting the Asian Winter Games this month, to flood media outlets with positive coverage, portraying the prestigious events as Nazarbayev's personal achievements.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asian affairs.