Kazakhstan voted on Sunday in an election designed to put a second party in parliament and ease growing discontent after deadly riots shook the country's image of stability.
No one doubts veteran President Nursultan Nazarbayev's Nur Otan party will win by a landslide. The second-placed party will also be guaranteed a presence in the 107-seat chamber, whether or not it clears the 7 percent entry threshold.
But Nazarbayev's most critical opponents have been barred from standing, and the party expected to come second is a pro-business group led by a former ruling party member.
Top-down changes are practically impossible in Kazakhstan, said opposition politician Bolat Abilov. The president, the ruling party and their circle are too convinced they are right.
Nazarbayev, 71, in power since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, remains overwhelmingly popular throughout most of his mainly Muslim country of 16.7 million people.
Central Asia's largest economy and oil producer, Kazakhstan's relative wealth has long helped it avoid the sort of unrest seen in other former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
But complaints have grown that many have remained poor while an elite few grew rich. Anger erupted last month in the remote western region of Mangistau, where oilmen sacked by their state-owned employers had been protesting for seven months.
Officials say 17 people were killed in clashes during which police fired live rounds. Some residents of Zhanaozen, a dusty oil town 150 km (90 miles) from the Caspian Sea, believe the death toll was higher. A state of emergency remains in place.
Black-clad security forces patrolled the town of 90,000 as polls opened in a blizzard. The first voter at a local school, a middle-aged woman, was presented with a vase. An unclaimed set of crystal glasses awaited the first 18-year-old voter.
I have just voted for our children to have a better future, to have good jobs so that their lives become better than ours, said Kumlyumkos Nurgazinov, 63, an oilfield machinery operator.
One of the first to vote, he cast his ballot for Nur Otan. The events that took place here should never be repeated, God forbid, he said. Cars drove slowly along slush-covered roads, snaking around concrete roadblocks.
Younger residents displayed little faith in the authorities.
We have all been deceived, said a man in his 20s who was fired from his job at the local oil company. He declined to identify himself for fear of repercussions. If the situation changes, it won't be for the good of the ordinary people.
Kazakhstan, four times the size of Texas, holds 3 percent of global oil reserves and has attracted more than $120 billion (78 billion pound) in foreign investment in two decades of independence. It boasts per capita GDP on a par with that of Turkey or Mexico.
The country has accumulated nearly $75 billion in foreign currency reserves and a National Fund for windfall oil revenues.
But with discontent growing about the distribution of wealth and an economic crisis looming, Kazakhstan called the election seven months early. Presidential adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbayev said on December 12 Kazakhstan was at a time of social reckoning.
Politicians are wary of the mass protests that greeted a disputed election last month in Russia, still Kazakhstan's biggest trading partner and a cultural reference point for its millions of Russian-speaking citizens.
This is a big examination for us, Nazarbayev said after voting in the national library in Astana, his futuristic capital on the windswept steppe. I'm sure Kazakhstanis will make the right choice for their future and for our peaceful development.
He cast his ballot shortly after his eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, a 48-year-old opera enthusiast and former media executive who is expected to return to frontline politics after being included on the Nur Otan party list.
The list also includes artists and sports stars, including cyclist Alexander Vinokourov. The lower chamber of parliament comprises 98 elected seats and a further nine to be appointed by the People's Assembly of Kazakhstan, a loyal consultative body.
Most important is the fact we will no longer have a one-party parliament, Nazarbayeva said.
The party widely expected to claim second place and a spot in parliament is the pro-business Ak Zhol, membership of which has swollen rapidly since its founder left Nur Otan last year to build it into the country's second-largest political force.
Zhanat Shauenov, a 44-year-old resident of the commercial capital Almaty, voted for Ak Zhol in the belief the party would invest more in education and medicine. They will devote more attention to small and medium-sized business, he said.
Many of Nazarbayev's more vehement critics have been barred from the election on technicalities.
This election will be another missed opportunity to bring political debate into the Kazakh parliament, said Lilit Gevorgyan, analyst at IHS Global Insight. Western monitors have never judged a Kazakh vote free and fair.
The critical Communist Party has been suspended while some outspoken opposition candidates from the Social-Democratic Party, which is standing, were removed from their party list for allegedly making inaccurate declarations of income and property.
Abilov, co-chairman of the Social Democrats and one of those removed from its party list, said those who wanted change would vote for his party. The other parties aspiring to parliament are filials of Nur Otan, he said.
(Additional reporting by Raushan Nurshayeva in Astana and Mariya Gordeyeva, Olga Orininskaya and Dina Teltayeva in Almaty; Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Andrew Roche)