ASTANA, Kazakhstan (AP) — Voters cast ballots Sunday in the oil-rich Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan in elections that are expected to slightly broaden democratic representation in parliament's rubber-stamp lower house.
All seats in the former Soviet nation's parliament are currently occupied by President Nursultan Nazarbayev's Nur Otan party. A 2009 election law gives at least two seats to the party with the second-highest number of votes even if it does not receive the 7 percent share that is the threshold for proportional allotment of seats.
However, opposition parties that were most likely to pose a robust challenge to Nur Otan have been either disqualified from competing or rendered largely powerless.
The pro-business Ak Zhol party, which avoids confrontation with the government, is seen as the most likely runner-up.
Prosperity and stability in Kazakhstan — mainly driven by its vast reserves of oil, gas and minerals — account for much of the support for Nur Otan and the president.
Kazakhstan is eager to boost its international image and hopes that a transition to a multiparty parliament will serve to improve its democratic credentials.
"This is a great test for us, we have more than 1,000 observers here from around the world. I am sure that the people of Kazakhstan will make the right choice for their future, for our development, and a peaceful life in our common home," Nazarbayev said after casting his ballot.
The elections are taking place in the shadow of an unusual outburst of discontent and violence.
In December, a long-term protest in the town of Zhanaozen by oil workers who had been fired after striking for better pay degenerated into clashes with police who opened fire. At least 16 people were killed, and the bloodshed set off a riot in another town where police killed one person.
In the capital, Astana, voters braved 7 degree Fahrenheit (minus 14 Celsius) weather as they started casting ballots at 7 a.m. (0100 GMT). Polls were to close at 8 p.m. (1400 GMT).
Voters at a polling station in the Kazakh Drama Theater said they were confident the elections would result in continued improvements in their living standards.
"I think that those running as candidates for parliament will protect our interests, support us and increase our pensions," said 62-year-old retiree Ajan Ospanova.
The recurring theme in the run-up to the elections, as in the polls that saw Nazarbayev reconfirmed president last year with a startling 95 percent of the vote, has been stability above all else.
Any potential for unrest in Kazakhstan is of concern to the West.
Kazakhstan is becoming increasingly important as a supplier of oil and gas, and the country is key to the northern delivery route for supplies to the U.S.-led military operation in Afghanistan.
More than 9 million people are eligible to vote in Sunday's elections and turnout is expected to be high. Although popular political engagement is low, mass participation in elections is a feature that has been carried over from Soviet times.
University students are regularly pressured into voting by teaching staff and government workers also face similar coercion. Gifts, such as household electrical goods, are typically handed out to first-time voters and war veterans as an additional inducement.
Election officials said no violations had been reported by early afternoon.