A senior State Department official says Kazakhstan's President Nursultan is likely to win re-election to another term by a broad margin in Sunday's election. But he also says the electoral system in the Central Asian state has undergone significant reform.
Mr. Nazarbayev has run the Kazakh government since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and won his first term in office in 1991 by gaining an improbable 98-point-seven percent of the vote.
But U.S. officials say Sunday's election, in which Mr. Nazarbayev is bidding for another term against four challengers, stands to be the best in the country's brief history, despite an array of complaints from opposition parties.
In a talk with VOA Friday, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza said independent polling suggests that the long-time Kazakh leader has a genuinely wide lead over his rivals, and could garner well in excess of 60 percent of the vote.
Mr. Bryza, the department's policy point man for Central Asia and the Caucasus region, says that electoral reforms enacted partly in response to Western pressure have led to significant improvements, and have at least put the country on the way to elections that meet world standards.
He said a key step was enactment of what amounts to an election code of conduct that the Kazakh government announced shortly after a visit in October by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice:
"In that code of conduct are commitments that have, by and large, been implemented on behalf of the government to provide access to the media, to television in particular, by opposition candidates to facilitate debates on television among the opposition candidates. That's happened. The government committed to publish accurate voter lists all over the country so that each voter can go and check whether he or she is on the lists, and correct the lists. That's happened. They published the lists in fact on November 18th. That has never happened before," he said.
Mr. Bryza said the government also committed to issuing election results, broken down by individual districts, within 24 hours of the election and to put the information on the Internet.
Despite the commitments, opposition parties have nonetheless complained of, among other things, limits on campaign advertising and theft of campaign materials, and have not ruled out post-election protests.
Mr. Bryza said the United States has had frequent contacts with opposition politicians, pressing them to take advantage of the access to voters provided in the reform package, while also urging that any election protests be peaceful and within the law. "When it comes to demonstrations and protests, we say that that right of freedom of assembly and a peaceful protest and a lawful protest in defense of your own democratic rights: that's part of democracy. But that's not the end of democracy. So we encourage in Kazakhstan, as in Azerbaijan, as we did in Georgia back in 2003, encourage the opposition leaders to take advantage of all the channels of discourse that are available to them. If it comes to the point where they feel they are compelled to protest, that they do so lawfully and peacefully," he said.
The United States will be taking part in a massive international monitoring operation that is expected to field some 14-hundred observers.
Mr. Bryza says U.S. personnel will be part of a monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, and that officials from the U.S. embassy and others sent from Washington will be taking part.
The OSCE and other monitoring groups have said that all post-Soviet Kazakh elections until now have fallen short of international standards. News reports say authorities have excluded some would-be monitors, but the Kazakh government insists that Sunday's vote will be most open and free in the country's history.