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Voters in Kazakhstan Prepare to Elect Next President

Nearly nine million registered voters in the central Asian nation of Kazakhstan are expected to turn out at the polls Sunday to choose the country's next president. The race pits four diverse candidates against incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who is widely expected to win the election.

A stroll down the main thoroughfare in Almaty, Kazakhstan's commercial capital, quickly highlights the relative wealth that has come to this country over the past decade, thanks to large oil and gas reserves.

Gold jewelry shops stand alongside designer boutiques mixed in among the occasional food or drink stand. But on the day before Sunday's presidential election, residents of Kazakhstan were mainly taking advantage of the bright, cool weather to enjoy a walk.

Economists say much of the country's oil riches are finally making their way to some segments of the population, but certainly not all, as this elderly pensioner demonstrates. Still, the woman says she will vote on Sunday for the ruling Otan party of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

The woman says she had a small pension during Soviet times and that things were tough. But now she says her life is much better and she has everything she needs. She gives credit to President Nazarbayev.

But this man was far more critical. Also a pensioner, the man says the government must pay more attention to social problems like providing better access to health care and unemployment benefits, and raising wages.

He also said he worries Sunday's vote will not be free and fair, despite President Nazarbayev's pledges to ensure a democratic vote as advocated by the United States and Europe.

More than 1,500 observers are expected to monitor Sunday's presidential election, including more than 400 from the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE.

Russia and the United States, which both boast considerable energy investments in the region, will be closely watching the OSCE's initial assessment of the election, which could indicate whether post election-related protests or violence risk stability in Kazakhstan.

Most analysts think protests, or color revolutions like those seen earlier in Ukraine and Georgia, are not as likely in Kazakhstan. Still, the Nazarbayev government is not taking any chances and has banned all protests immediately after the elections.

Kazakh authorities also closed the border with neighboring Kyrgyzstan, which earlier this year saw election-related protests that drove Soviet-style leader Askar Akayev from power.

President Nazarbayev has said that economic and political reforms must take precedence over democratic reforms. But the main candidate of Kazakhstan's democratic opposition, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, says Kazakhstan risks a return to Soviet-style degradation and collapse if it continues down, what he calls, this corrupt and backward path.