MOSCOW (AP) — For the first time in nearly three decades of independence, Kazakhstan is holding a presidential election without Nursultan Nazarbayev on the ballot. But the longtime leader of the oil-rich Central Asian country still casts a long shadow on the vote.
Nazarbayev loyalist Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who became acting president after Nazarbayev's surprise resignation in March, is seen as certain to win in Sunday's snap election that features seven candidates.
The 78-year-old Nazarbayev's influence remains enormous in Kazakhstan, where he continues as head of the security council and the ruling Nur-Otan party and carries the title of "elbasy (national leader)." Tokayev proved his fealty to Nazarbayev shortly after becoming acting president by approving renaming the country's capital as Nur-Sultan in his honor.
The resignation in March surprised many who had expected Nazarbayev either to run next year in regularly scheduled elections or to organize a dynastic succession that would see his daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, who has held various government posts, come to power.
But some analysts consider that Nazarbayev wanted his family and himself to take a breather while the country wrestles with the problems of economic diversification and social discontent.
"The direct promotion of his daughter to the top post would have hit Nazarbayev's reputation very much," analyst Vyacheslav Polovinko wrote in a piece for the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Now, as President, Tokayev looks like the main conductor of domestic policy, which Kazakhstani society is less and less satisfied with, and thus becomes the main public target for criticism."
In the first anti-government rallies in years, Kazakhs in the big cities took to the streets to protest what has been perceived as an orchestrated handover of power and call for a boycott of the election.
The emerging movement is mostly composed of young, Western-educated Kazakhs who benefited from Kazakhstan's economic boom and relative openness and are now baffled at the autocratic handover of power. Albeit relatively small, the protests in April and May made the government jittery to the point where several independent online media outlets were briefly blocked and the internet was temporarily down in some areas. But organized opposition is diffuse and unlikely to affect the vote.
After the fall of Communism, the huge Central Asian nation of 18 million went on to become one of the most prosperous former Soviet republics, but Kazakhstan is now standing on a crossroads between Russia to the west and China to the east.
In recent years, Kazakhstan has played an increasingly prominent role in China's signature, trillion-dollar foreign policy and infrastructure project known as the Belt and Road Initiative, with the transit hub of Khorgos on the Chinese-Kazakh border playing a key role for the movement of goods. At home, Nazarbayev and his successor Tokayev, however, are under pressure for a seeming lack of action to help ethnic Kazakhs held in Chinese interment camps.
China in recent years has moved to the forefront as a major investor in Kazakhstan, pouring in billions of dollars into major infrastructure projects and creating much-needed jobs.
Nazarbayev has always prided himself on maintaining a careful balancing act between Russia and China. But relations with both have had their ups and downs in recent years. Many Kazakhs became wary of Russia following its annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in 2014, fearing that Moscow's declarations that it was rectifying a historic wrong would reignite Russia's claims to the largely Russian-speaking north of Kazakhstan.
Campaigning in this year's election has mostly been low-key, even negligent. Three of the candidates, including Tokayev, skipped a televised presidential debate, sending surrogates in their stead.
Amirzhan Kossanov, the only candidate who has been openly critical of Nazarbayev and Tokayev, says that trust in politics is low after decades of elections in which Nazarbayev faced stalking-horse candidates.
"The majority of people are not interested," he told The Associated Press. As to whether Sunday's vote will be tallied honestly, Kossanov said: "The president has promised that; I don't know how it will be fulfilled in reality."