Nursultan Nazarbayev, the autocratic president of Kazakhstan, has ruled the Central Asian country since 1990, when Kazakhstan was still part of the Soviet Union. But on March 19, Nazarbayev did something that dictators rarely do, according to Foreign Policy magazine: he resigned. But as the Foreign Policy report made clear, while the longtime ruler was giving up the title of president, he was not surrendering power.
In fact, the 78-year-old Nazarbayev quickly named the chair of Kazakhstan's Senate, who is also a close political ally, to serve as "interim" president until snap elections could be held. And on Sunday, those elections took place. According to exit polls, surprising no one, Nazarbayev's hand-picked successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has won the presidency with 70 percent of the vote, according to the Polish news agency TVP.
Taking second place with 15 percent of the vote, at least according to the exit poll taken by the polling agency Public Opinion — also hand-picked by the Kazakhstan government — is political activist Amirzhan Kosanov, according to an Al-Jazeera English report.
In 2012, Kosanov, leader of the opposition Azat Freedom Party, was arrested and detained for leading a protest against Nazarbayev's human rights record, according to The Mail & Guardian.
If there was any doubt about who remained in charge of political affairs in Kazakhstan, the 66-year-old Tokayev's first official act when he was named interim president was to change the name of the country's capital city of Astana, according to The Atlantic magazine. The new name is Nur-Sultan, in honor of Nazarbayev.
But in a country where political protests are rare and often ruthlessly suppressed, about 500 people have been reported arrested on Sunday, as they staged "unauthorized" demonstrations against what they said was the fake, rigged presidential election, according to an Associated Press report.
Internet access in the country was blocked on Election Day, according to the online monitoring group NetBlocks, which wrote on its Twitter account that the internet shutdowns were "coordinated with political arrests of journalists and critics."
Of the seven candidates on the ballot, according to the AP, Kosanov was the only "genuine opposition figure," and the first such opposition candidate allowed on the ballot since the country declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. But Kosanov said that he was satisfied that the election itself was conducted fairly, while issuing a warning that votes had not yet been counted.
"The most important result, the peak of the election political process, is counting of the votes," he said, as quoted by the AP. The first returns from the election are expected on Monday.
With an estimated 30 billion barrels of reserves, Kazakhstan is believed to be one of the 15 most oil-rich countries in the world, according to The Oil & Gas Year industry news site.