Hand-picked successor sweeps Kazakh vote criticised by monitors

Dana Rysmukhamedova with Christopher Rickleton in Almaty

Nur-Sultan (Kazakhstan) (AFP) - The hand-picked successor of Kazakhstan's longtime ruler won a sweeping victory in presidential elections that monitors said Monday had shown "scant respect" for democracy.

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took 70.8 percent, the Central Election Commission said, in elections Sunday marred by a police crackdown.

His nearest rival, opposition candidate Amirzhan Kosanov took 16.2 percent.

At a post-victory press conference, Tokayev insisted he was the "fully mandated president" of the oil-rich Central Asian country of 18 million people.

But he will likely play second fiddle to Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country's 78-year-old president of three decades who shocked Kazakhs with his abrupt retirement in March.

Tokayev told reporters Sunday that Nazarbayev, who turned Kazakhstan into an energy powerhouse while governing with little tolerance for opposition, was "still in power in the capacity of chairman of the security council... and other capacities".

Sunday saw hundreds of arrests after the biggest protests in Kazakhstan in at least three years, as demonstrators urged a boycott of what they said was a fixed election.

The interior ministry said about 500 people were arrested in protests in the capital Nur-Sultan and in Almaty, the biggest city, organised by what it described as "radical elements".

An AFP correspondent witnessed scores more people arrested on Monday.

"A lack of regard for fundamental rights, including detentions of peaceful protesters, and widespread voting irregularities on election day, showed scant respect for democratic standards," said observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Tokayev, however, thanked the police for putting down protests he said were influenced "from the outside" -- a reference to Nazarbayev's foreign-based political opponent Mukhtar Ablyazov.

He said the elections were "fair and open".

- Predecessor's blessing -

Tokayev's victory was never in doubt after he received the blessing of Nazarbayev, whose reign began during the Soviet era.

Local activist group "Oyan Kazakhstan" called the vote illegitimate, criticising restrictions on monitors at polling stations and the treatment of peaceful protesters detained at rallies.

"Detainees were not notified of their rights, and in most cases denied access to qualified legal assistance," it said in a statement.

Two members of the Oyan group -- political scientist Dimash Alzhanov and journalist Assem Zhapisheva -- were held by police for hours before being released.

Police have not given information about the fate of protesters detained on Sunday. Authorities in Kazakhstan traditionally fine or sentence protesters to short stays in jail for participating in "unsanctioned" rallies.

Tokayev's opponents were quick to congratulate him -- including Kosanov, a journalist who presented himself as the ballot's sole opposition candidate.

"This political transition will take place with the participation of the people," Kosanov said.

He also criticised "foreign-based" opposition figures who had encouraged voters to boycott the poll.

Kosanov had previously said that if the count was fair the result would go to a second round.

The third place was claimed by Daniya Yespayeva, the first woman candidate in a Kazakh presidential election. She scored 5.2 percent, according to the CEC.

- Journalists detained -

Tokayev said a foreign policy oriented on strategic partners China and Russia and cooperation with other Central Asian states would continue under his presidency.

President Vladimir Putin congratulated the victor by telephone, the Kremlin said Monday.

Turnout was 77 percent, according to the CEC -- down from 95 percent reported four years ago when Nazarbayev ran virtually unopposed.

Many people in Nur-Sultan, named after Nazarbayev, and in Almaty told AFP they had not voted.

Aigul Eskarayeva, a 60-year-old pensioner in Nur-Sultan said she thought voting was "pointless".

"But I enjoyed the opportunity to use public transport for free all Sunday," she told AFP.

Journalists, including two from AFP and reporters for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, were among those detained during Sunday's protests in Almaty, but were later released.

Tokayev said he expected his inauguration, marking the beginning of a five-year-term in office, to take place on Wednesday.