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In Kazakhstan, where elections are superfluous

While Nursultan Nazarbayev is around, there’s little chance of marching in the streets of Astana and

Across Astana, Kazakhstan's shiny if somewhat soulless new capital, election posters are being taken down after Sunday's snap presidential poll. The country has just held a surreal election that offered the semblance of a democratic event: the faces of the four candidates adorned billboards, television and newspapers built up suspense about the results, and officials talked excitedly about the new technologies on offer in the voting booths.

But these were mere trappings for an election that was a foregone conclusion.

No one had the slightest doubt about the winner. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the strongman president who has led Kazakhstan for the past two decades, was returned to power, winning a monstrous victory.

And by monstrous, that means 95 per cent of the vote, according to official figures. This was up from the last presidential election in 2005, when his 91 per cent score was only marginally more modest.

In fact, so confident was Nazarbayev of returning to power this time round, he didn't even bother campaigning, leaving his rivals to tour the country, attempt to woo crowds and debate among themselves. One of the three challengers, the environmental activist Mels Yeleusizov, even admitted that he, too, had voted for Nazarbayev.

Beat and block

Although this year's Arab awakening suggests noisy people power could penetrate parts of the world previously thought resistant to western-style democracy, the Asian steppe seems immune to the phenomenon. While the elections at least took place in Kazakhstan, they were more a confirmation than a contest.

Nazarbayev himself seems to have little doubt about the vote. "You've given me carte blanche to continue the course of economic, political and social reforms," he said Monday morning at the headquarters of his party, Nur Otan. Nazarbayev insisted that the election was "open and fair", and officials brashly predicted that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which had 300 election monitors in the country, would agree.

But that did not happen. The OSCE, Europe's main poll-monitoring body, found irregularities, citing ballot-box stuffing, spurious rules for candidate registration, intimidation and media bias. There were minor improvements since the 2007 parliamentary elections – when Nur Otan won 88 per cent of the vote and picked up all 98 seats in the Majilis, or lower house.

However, the OSCE said the overall effect of the restrictions – whether formal or unsaid – was to quench debate and dissent. "This election has showed that the country still needs to make improvements to meet democratic commitments, particularly in the fields of freedom of assembly and media," said the OSCE's head mission observer, Tonino Picula.

There were reports of journalists being beaten, websites being blocked and activists being detained. Criticising the president is sometimes interpreted as libel, which is a criminal offence, making self-censorship another issue.

The main opposition candidates boycotted the election (raising questions about the reported 89.9 per cent turnout). The three official opponents – from the Communist People's Party, the environmental union Tabigat and the Patriots' Party – were considered no-hopers, there to offer the veneer of competition.

There are wider democratic concerns about the country. A survey last year by the Washington-based rights group Freedom House declared Kazakhstan "not free". A February report by the International Crisis Group said: "Kazakhstan has made patchy progress in some sectors and conserved Soviet endowments in others." And Transparency International, which monitors corruption, placed Kazakhstan 105th out of 178 countries surveyed in 2010 – though this is up from 145th in 2008.

Nazarbayev's entourage is unfazed by criticism. "He's very popular. That's just how it is," says one of his aides, Yermukhmamet Yertisbayev. "He has that personality. It's like Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson: there is just no one who can fight him." And – in an echo of the arguments used by the Arab autocrats allied with the west – he underlines Nazarbayev's strategic usefulness. "He has fought nationalism and religious extremism," Yertisbayev adds.

Stability is all

Many of us know Kazakhstan only through Borat, football qualifiers and, more recently, Prince Andrew's dubious connections. Thanks to oil and gas money, however, Kazakhstan has become a regional linchpin.

Eleven times the size of Britain, this nation of 16 million brands itself as the economically dynamic, politically stable link between Europe and Asia. It is a member of Europe's football union Uefa, chaired the OSCE last year but takes part in the Asian Games, and is also set to chair the Organisation of the Islamic Conference this year. Diplomatically, it has adroitly played off Washington, Moscow and Beijing, all of whom want to exploit the country's oil and gas fields.

Nazarbayev, 70, has been in power since 1989 when Kazakhstan was still part of the Soviet Union. He sees himself as his country's George Washington, and was named "Leader of the Nation" last year, granting him immunity from prosecution for life and the power to approve important policies even after he retires. Last year, he urged his country's scientists to develop an elixir of life to keep him going, saying they should study "rejuvenation of the organism".

But it would be too glib to dismiss him as a neo-Soviet autocrat with a cult of personality, offering authoritarianism-lite. Kazakhstanis don't worship Nazarbayev, but most credit him for steering the country out of Soviet rule to become central Asia's most vibrant economy and freest state. Last year, Kazakhstan enjoyed 7 per cent growth.

The country currently holds 3 per cent of global oil reserves and is the world's largest uranium miner. Since independence, per capita output has risen more than twelvefold, while foreign investment into the country has totalled $120bn.

As for the Arab spring, there is a cautionary tale closer to home. Last year, a bloody revolt deposed the president of Kyrgyzstan, a nation that remains crime-ridden and split by regional clans and ethnic divisions. Certainly stability, more than freedom, appears important to the average Kazakhstani.

"There are many examples of putting political reform before economic growth, and it has not always been successful," says Nurlan Baiyuzakovich Yermekbayev, another presidential aide, referring to Kyrgyzstan. "It may be difficult to believe, but he really is that popular."

The chances are that Nazarbayev would win handsomely even if the elections were as free and fair as election observers might hope for. But the constant emphasis on stability puts heavy strains on the system. There is no heir apparent: when he goes, there are fears the country will descend into a vicious power struggle.

While Nazarbayev is around, there is little chance of marching in the streets of Astana and Almaty. But – as events in the Arab world have shown – stability without democracy brings its own risks, too.

Leo Cendrowicz is a correspondent for TIME magazine