WHILE demonstrators in north Africa and the Middle East are standing up to one-man rule in their countries, great numbers of people in Kazakhstan thronged to the polls on April 3rd to vote for an authoritarian strongman who has been in power since the days of the Soviet Union.
And how they voted. President Nursultan Nazarbayev got 95.5% of the votes on a turnout of 89.5%, a touch of almost Soviet class. Ever higher support in successive elections for the glorious "leader of the nation" is nothing new.
It had, said the 70-year-old before a crowd of mainly young Kazakhstanis waving the sky-blue national flag, caused a "sensation" in Western capitals. Elsewhere in the world was bloodshed and strife. But here, Mr Nazarbayev beamed, his election proved that unity ruled among ethnic groups and religions, and all was bliss.
The observer mission from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was less enthused. It noted "serious irregularities," such as identical signatures on voter lists and instances of ballot boxes being stuffed. The OSCE found "undue pressure" on people to vote, especially those working for state institutions such as schools, hospitals and the armed forces. None of this is new either. Of the three rival candidates, one of them admitted that he voted for the incumbent, as did his family. The presidential election was called suddenly, at two months' notice, leaving little time for opposition parties to prepare. Some opposition groups think they have a better chance in parliamentary elections due in 2012 or perhaps later this year.
Election dates are often moved up in oil-rich Kazakhstan, whenever it suits the authorities. The term of Mr Nazarbayev was due to end in late 2012. Early this year, a curious national drive to collect millions of signatures endorsing a referendum whose aim was to allow Mr Nazarbayev's presidential term to be extended to 2020 earned strong criticism from the West. After backing down from that initiative, an adviser says, Mr Nazarbayev would have looked foolish just twiddling his thumbs. So he kept up the momentum by announcing early elections instead. The West duly praised him.
Rigging aside, Mr Nazarbayev appears genuinely popular, and would have won handily anyway. But appearances are all. Last year parliament designated him "leader of the nation", granting him far-reaching powers beyond his term in office. Perhaps Mr Nazarbayev felt he really had to do better than the mere 91% of votes he wangled in the last presidential election, in 2005.
The nation's father has always said economics comes first, politics second. Since the early 1990s, market reforms and reserves of oil and gas have helped boost per-head GDP from around $700 to more than $8,000, making Kazakhstan a middle-income country. Ethnic strife in a multi-ethnic land has been notably absent. Politically, however, Kazakhstan has stagnated. Dissent has been stifled. Pro-Nazarbayev media dominates.
The pressing matter is Mr Nazarbayev's failure to resolve his own succession. He will, he says, serve as long as his health and people allow, ie, for ever. So everyone, from the elites to ordinary folk to foreign investors, worries that he will take the country's stability with him when he goes. The name of a new chairman of the Senate is expected soon. He will be the formal successor should the president die or be incapacitated in office. Rarely do long-serving strongmen make a habit of nurturing successors with ambition and talent.