“HAPPY HOLIDAY!” a pie seller in Kazakh national dress told voters leaving a polling station in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s financial capital. A short stroll away in a leafy park, police were ruining the festive mood. Masked security forces carried away prostrate protesters and hurled them into police vans. They were breaking up a peaceful demonstration by a few hundred dissenters who had gathered to demand change, even as the man who was certain to be elected president promised them continuity.
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev won a landslide in the election, which was called following the recent resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the iron-fisted leader who had ruled for three decades. Kazakhstan has never held a vote deemed free and fair by credible international observers. This time monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) noted that the election showed “scant respect for democratic standards”. Despite the presence this time of a candidate critical of the regime, the current election seems only cosmetically different. Mr Tokayev stormed in with 71% of the vote, admittedly far below Mr Nazarbayev’s last triumph, at 98%. Mr Tokayev’s closest rival, Amirzhan Kosanov, trailed on 16%.
Mr Kosanov’s presence is a departure from tradition: Mr Nazarbayev used to run against supporters of the regime who took part simply to provide a semblance of competition. This is the first presidential election in 14 years to feature a challenger with a record of opposition, although other critics of the regime worry that he, too, will just provide a democratic veneer. How could it be otherwise in a country that has no formal opposition parties, in which the media and civil society are muzzled?
The apparent rubber-stamping of Mr Tokayev (he is currently interim president) in this choreographed election is part of an experiment that Mr Nazarbayev has dreamt up for his country, untested elsewhere in the post-Soviet world. He seems to be attempting to install a chosen successor while still alive to secure his legacy, although some speculate that Mr Tokayev is just a seat-warmer in an even more elaborate scheme.
Rumours are rife that Mr Nazarbayev wants his daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, who presides over the Senate, to become president eventually. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan’s 78-year-old founding father is micromanaging the transition to a president cast in his own image. Mr Tokayev, 66, is a Soviet-era apparatchik who became foreign minister and prime minister after Kazakhstan became independent. His diplomatic skills will help him juggle relations with Kazakhstan’s mighty neighbours, Russia and China, as well as the West–a trick Mr Nazarbayev managed with great dexterity.
But it is at home that Mr Tokayev will face his greatest challenges. Mr Nazarbayev’s resignation has galvanised some of Kazakhstan’s 18m citizens—especially people under 29, who have only ever known Mr Nazarbayev as leader and now make up over half the population—to challenge the regime’s zero-tolerance attitude towards dissent. The authorities in Nur-Sultan, the capital recently renamed after Mr Nazarbayev, have responded by arresting peaceful protesters, rounding up 500 on election day in Nur-Sultan and Almaty and another 100 or so in Almaty on June 10th after results were released. Three mothers are under house arrest after participating in a demonstration in May. The regime has jailed people for demanding a fair election, and briefly detained a man who displayed a blank piece of paper, with no overt criticism of the regime, to test the limits of peaceful expression.
Such repression has backfired. It has become the catalyst for a protest movement rallying around a phrase from a century-old poem urging Kazakhs to shake off the shackles of Russian colonial rule: “I’ve woken up.” Inventive videos have gone viral. Offline, activists have formed a new movement, “Oyan, Qazaqstan” (Wake Up, Kazakhstan). Critics deride them as out-of-touch hipsters, but their nine-point platform for political reforms, including the abolition of the executive presidency, is clear and straightforward.
Mr Tokayev is not on record as having studied it. His capacity to conduct reforms is hamstrung by the looming presence of Mr Nazarbayev, who will not want to see the system he fashioned dismantled, or even tinkered with. Despite the country’s oil wealth many complain of unemployment, low wages, corruption, and a lack of access to housing, health care and education. Before the election, Mr Tokayev took to Twitter to promise “political modernisation” and reforms to tackle festering socio-economic grievances. “Old problems—new solutions,” he tweeted brightly. Kassymkhan Kapparov, a respected economist and pro-democracy activist, riposted tartly: “Old problems—old people who created them.”