Kazakhstan voted on Sunday in an election that will admit a second party to parliament, in a small concession to democracy by President Nursultan Nazarbayev after deadly clashes in a mutinous oil town shook the country's stable image.
In Zhanaozen, the oil town where at least 16 people were killed in December clashes between police and protesters, black-clad police, many armed with Kalashnikov rifles, patrolled the streets. Beneath billboard images of Nazarbayev, who has ruled since 1989 and has no obvious successor, voters braved a blizzard to cast their ballots.
Although Nazarbayev's ruling party is certain of a landslide win, this election, like no other before it, will guarantee the second-placed party a presence in the lower house, regardless of whether it clears the 7 percent entry threshold.
While the president's most critical opponents have been barred from standing, the vote is designed to create a veneer of democracy in the ex-Soviet state. The 71-year-old leader is under pressure to counter unrest in a nation whose citizens are becoming disgruntled about unequal distribution of oil riches.
I have 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 in Zhanaozen.
Stability in Kazakhstan had been upset by a series of Islamist-inspired attacks even before the Independence Day riots in Zhanaozen, where striking oil workers sacked by state-run companies had been protesting for higher wages since May.
In a gesture keeping with his support of the sacked oilmen, Nazarbayev -- who is overwhelmingly popular throughout most of the country of 16.7 million people -- overruled a decision by the constitutional council to cancel the election in Zhanaozen.
He also demanded jobs be found quickly for the 1,800 workers laid off by local oil companies. But not everyone is satisfied.
They threw a humiliating job at me. I still don't know what my wages will be, said a man in his 20s, a former employee of the local oil company. He said police had beaten him on the day of the riot.
First to arrive at Polling Station No. 65 was a middle-aged woman who walked away with a vase, recalling a Soviet tradition to entice voters with gifts. A set of crystal wine glasses for the first 18-year-old voter was still unclaimed by late morning.
RELUCTANT TO SPEAK
A sense of fear accompanied voters who arrived to vote at a local school in the shadow of a burnt-out electronics store ransacked during the riots.
Many in the town refused to speak to reporters who were accompanied by police and officials. Most of the voters who did agree to speak expressed support for the ruling Nur Otan party.
By rubber-stamping Nazarbayev's policies, the party is viewed by many as the best guarantor of the stability that has set Kazakhstan apart from its restive and poorer Central Asian neighbours.
Unemployed driver Agadzhan Tulyayev, 43, said better utilities were needed in a town that imports drinking water along a pipeline from Russia. Nur Otan says 90 percent of urban households nationwide will be connected to the water mains by 2017.
We also need peace. Only Nur Otan can bring this, he said.
Kazakhstan, four times the size of Texas, holds 3 percent of global oil reserves and has attracted more than $120 billion 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 -- a buffer that Nazarbayev warns may be needed to insulate the country from a looming economic crisis.
Politicians are also 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.
The president 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 and two Olympic gold medallists.
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 Almaty resident, said he had 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.
But several opposition parties have been barred from standing. Opposition politician Bolat Abilov, removed from his party list for allegedly falsifying his income declaration, said five of Nur Otan's six rival parties were filials.
Top-down changes are practically impossible in Kazakhstan, said Abilov, co-chairman of the All-National Social Democratic Party. The president, the ruling party and their circle are too convinced they are right.
While Abilov's Social Democrats are contesting the vote, the Communist Party has been suspended while another critical movement, Alga!, has been denied registration as an official political party.
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.
Local news agencies reported the Social Democrats had been granted official permission to hold a protest in the commercial capital and largest city, Almaty, on January 17.
Zhanaozen, 150 km (95 miles) from the Caspian Sea, is under a state of emergency. Miklos Haraszti, head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's observer mission, said this had affected freedom of movement and information.
One right is supposed to be free and undisturbed: the right to elect. This situation needs special focus, he said.
(Additional reporting by Raushan Nurshayeva in Astana, Mariya Gordeyeva, Olga Orininskaya, Dina Teltayeva and Robin Paxton in Almaty; Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Rosalind Russell)