ALMATY (Reuters) - Kazakhstan’s mass media are muzzled in the run-up to an early presidential election on April 3, while stiff and murky laws have barred the registration of several candidates, Europe’s leading vote monitoring group said. President Nursultan Nazarbayev, a 70-year-old former steelworker, has ruled his vast steppe nation since Soviet times and is expected to easily win another five years at the helm of Central Asia’s largest economy.
Nazarbayev, who has overseen market reforms and $150 billion (93 billion pounds) in foreign investment, tolerates little dissent but is genuinely popular within the nation of 16.4 million, where authorities have rigidly prevented the rise of a strong opponent.
Confident of his landslide win, the president — who says he plans to rule for as long as his health and people will allow — has abstained from nationwide campaigning.
He will face a nominal challenge from three candidates, none of whom has ever publicly opposed his policies, but some of Kazakhstan’s disparate opposition parties are boycotting the vote, which they call “a Nazarbayev show.”
“The media operate in a restrictive environment, due to legal provisions which contribute to self-censorship,” election monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said in an interim report.
Kazakhstan, which last year occupied the rotating chair of the OSCE, has never held an election judged free or fair by international observers. The OSCE said it had also left unaddressed a number of recommended legislative changes.
The OSCE said that, although Kazakhstan’s constitution guarantees freedom of speech, defamation and insult are still criminal offences punishable with harsh penalties.
The law gives special protection to the president and public officials, and in the past the criminal code has been used frequently against journalists and editors critical of the authorities, the OSCE said in the report.
It said application of a mandatory Kazakh-language test for presidential candidates lacked clear criteria which, combined with the opaque procedure for verifying supporting signatures, had barred most of the original 22 nominees from standing.
“Previous OSCE/ODIHR recommendations to clarify legal provisions on candidate registration remain unaddressed,” the OSCE said. The ODIHR, or Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, is the OSCE’s election monitoring arm.
“The Kazakh language test presented an obstacle for some candidates ... it remains partly unclear how the Linguistic Commission appointed by the Central Election Commission arrived at its conclusions,” the OSCE said in the report.
Of the 22 initial nominees, five failed the language test and four did not take it, while five more withdrew before the registration deadline.
Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Catherine Evans