NUR-SULTAN/ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN - Polls have closed in Kazakhstan where police detained hundreds of protesters and several journalists as the country held a snap presidential election, with the chosen successor of authoritarian ex-President Nursultan Nazarbaev expected to win easily.
More than 100 protesters were detained in the in Astana Square in Kazakhstan's largest city of Almaty as they were calling for a boycott of the election in which Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev is running against six government-approved candidates in a carefully controlled election.
RFE/RL correspondents also reported that some 500 people held an anti-government rally near the Palace of Youth in the capital, Nur-Sultan — newly renamed after the former president.
They said that police detained some 100 protesters in the capital, including several foreign and local journalists covering the event. RFE/RL Kazakh Service reporter Pyotr Trotsenko was among them. He and several of the other journalists were later released.
A second wave of detentions took place hours later at the same site, with dozens of people being detained where some demonstrators had refused to leave. Dozens of people also drove their vehicles to the square and honked their horns in support of the protesters.
Deputy Interior Minister Marat Qozhaev told journalists in Nur-Sultan that about 500 "radically-minded elements" were detained in Almaty and the capital for holding "unauthorized protests." He said earlier that the detentions were made in order "to preserve law and order."
A small group of pro-government supporters also appeared during the second wave of detentions in Nur-Sultan, but were allowed to stay.
Internet access in Nur-Sultan and Almaty was reportedly severely slowed down, preventing live streaming and making it very difficult to read social-media sites.
Security measures were heavily stepped up in the capital and in Almaty, with dozens of police officers deployed in Astana Square and elsewhere in the city.
The protesters in Nur-Sultan were calling for free and fair elections and were holding blue balloons, a sign of support for a banned opposition group, Kazakhstan's Democratic Choice (DVK).
The movement’s leader is Mukhtar Ablyazov, a vocal critic of Nazarbaev and his government, who lives in self-imposed exile in France. Ablyazov has urged people in the past to hold blue balloons at anti-government rallies.
Police put some 10 buses near the Palace of Youth to be used to remove protesters and also blocked the Respublika and Abai streets near the city center.
Twenty protesters were detained in the southern city of Shymkent.
When he was asked by RFE/RL about journalists being detained, Qozhaev said he was unaware of any such detentions.
The U.K.-based NetBlocks group that monitors cyberspace says the Internet was blocked in Kazakhstan early on election day.
"Multiple Internet providers in Kazakhstan blocked access to online streaming services as well as totally cutting the Internet access for most users in the late morning on Sunday, 9 May 2019, the day of presidential elections, according to NetBlocks Internet observatory network measurements," the group said in a statement.
The group's director, Alp Toker, told RFE/RL that the Internet was blocked in Kazakhstan in a very professional and sophisticated way.
Toqaev, 66, was tapped by longtime authoritarian President Nazarbaev as his successor when he stepped down on March 19 after nearly 30 years leading the energy-rich country, the largest in Central Asia.
Toqaev voted at a station in the Astana Opera House in Nur-Sultan.
"Our people are concerned about many social and economic issues," he told reporters. "This is why elections are a good opportunity to decide who is going to lead the country, what our country will be like in the future."
Toqaev, who is running against six government-approved candidates, said that the election "will be open and transparent."
"At least, from the side of the government, we have done everything possible to achieve this," Toqaev added.
Answering a question from RFE/RL regarding people protesting the snap election and their slogan "Toqaev is not my president!" the interim president said he was aware of it.
"If some citizens raise that slogan then that is their choice," Toqaev said.
The other six candidates are virtually unknown to voters and have little campaign or public support.
The early election, which was called by Toqaev on April 9 to avoid "political uncertainty," is being criticized by Kazakh opposition activists an unfair and noncompetitive.
None of the elections held in Kazakhstan since it became independent in 1991 has been deemed free or fair by international organizations.
There have been an unusually large number of public demonstrations in Kazakhstan since Nazarbaev's resignation, with protesters calling for political reforms and many urging voters to boycott the vote.
Many activists have been detained and given fines or jail sentences, while some young male activists have been suddenly drafted into the army.
Large groups of Kazakh mothers have held numerous rallies in recent months to demand increased social benefits and housing, underscoring a general dissatisfaction with the government seen in other demonstrations and civil meetings.
Despite officially stepping down as president, Nazarbaev holds many important political positions and still wields considerable power within the country and inside his political party, Nur-Otan, whose presidential candidate is Toqaev.
Nazarbaev's reign was marked by economic progress fueled by plentiful reserves of oil and natural gas, but it was largely overshadowed by despotic rule that shut down independent media, suppressed protests, and trampled democratic norms.
Human Rights Watch wrote recently that Kazakhstan "heavily restricts" basic freedoms such as speech, religion, and assembly, while Freedom House calls the Kazakh government a "consolidated authoritarian regime."
A career diplomat educated in Moscow and considered an expert on China, Toqaev has served as Kazakh prime minister, foreign minister, and chairman of the Senate. He also worked for the United Nations in Geneva in 2011-13.
Toqaev has said publicly that he will continue the same policies as Nazarbaev if elected as president.
In preelection moves likely aimed at consolidating support for Toqaev, the state recently increased salaries for government employees and hiked welfare payments.
Nazarbaev's daughter, Darigha, replaced Toqaev as Senate leader in March and would be first in line to the presidency should anything happen to the president.
The six candidates permitted to run against Toqaev in the election are parliament deputies Zhambyl Akhmetbekov and Dania Espaeva, labor union leader Amangeldy Taspikhov, state sports executive Sadybek Tugel, scientist Toleutai Rakhimbekov, and journalist Amirzhan Qosanov.
Kazakhstan's voters among the population of 18.7 million voted at 238 polling stations nationwide as well as at the Kazakh Embassy in Moscow and consulates in St. Petersburg, Kazan, Astrakhan, and Omsk.