Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was headed for a landslide victory in a snap election on Sunday, according to exit polls, solidifying his grip on power less than a year after he sidelined his long-ruling predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The former diplomat, who came to power in 2019 as Nazarbayev's hand-picked successor when the Central Asian nation's only ruler since the Soviet era stepped down, broke with his ex-patron after a January uprising that Tokayev called a coup attempt.
A new election victory, polls showed him winning between 82% and 85% of the vote, will give Tokayev, 69, the sort of overwhelming personal mandate that Nazarbayev routinely secured as he built a personality cult over five successive terms.
Nazarbayev, who had held on to important posts after stepping down, gave them up during the uprising early this year in which 238 people died. Tokayev has since forced Nazarbayev allies to relinquish other positions and changed the name of the capital - renamed "Nur-Sultan" in Nazarbayev's honor - back to Astana.
Tokayev called in Russian help to put down the January unrest, but has since kept his distance from Moscow, avoiding giving public backing to Russia's war in Ukraine.
Russia is Kazakhstan's biggest trading partner, and Russia's slide into recession has hurt its neighbor's economy, while the strength of the ruble, boosted by capital controls, has helped push inflation in Kazakhstan to a 14-year high.
Tokayev, a former foreign minister and deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, has overseen constitutional reforms that limit his own rule to two terms. He has also promised to reduce income inequality by rooting out corruption and redistributing wealth more fairly in the country of 19 million people.
The presidential election had originally been scheduled for late 2024 but was moved up after January's unrest and a subsequent constitutional referendum. Tokayev said on Sunday he would continue "resetting" the political system by calling an early parliamentary election next year. Tokayev quit the ruling Amanat party this year and oversaw reforms making it easier to establish new political parties.
Opinion polls have predicted none of the five other candidates would score in the double digits in Sunday's vote.
"Among those who are running for president, I only know Tokayev, firstly," Timerlan Sadykov, a resident of Almaty, Kazakhstan's biggest city, said on the eve of the vote.
"And secondly, the way he's conducted himself on the international stage has been very appealing."
Another Almaty voter, a 35-year-old manager who only gave his first name, Serik, said he voted against all candidates.
"... I think the powers that be must realize they have given us no real choice," he said.
Police detained a few dozen people in Almaty who staged small-scale protests against the vote, calling it illegal, according to opposition groups and local media. Police said some were soon released, while others faced misdemeanor charges.
By the time polling stations closed across Kazakhstan at 9 p.m. local time, 69.4% of voters had cast their ballots, the Central Election Commission said. Preliminary results of the vote are expected on Monday.