Genuine opposition parties were excluded from this weekend's election in Kazakhstan, Western monitors said, while President Nursultan Nazarbayev portrayed the ruling party's overwhelming victory as evidence of national unity following an outbreak of unrest.
Kazakhstan's parliament will contain three parties, all of them sympathetic to the president, for the first time after Sunday's vote to create a veneer of democracy in the face of growing frustration over the unequal distribution of oil riches in the former Soviet republic ruled by Nazarbayev since 1989.
But parties which oppose Nazarbayev were barred from the vote, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a scathing report on the election.
This election took place in a tightly controlled environment, with serious restrictions on citizens' electoral rights, said Miklos Haraszti, head of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights' observation mission.
Genuine pluralism does not need the orchestration we have seen, he said on Monday.
Nazarbayev, 71, hailed his Nur Otan party's victory as a sign of national unity one month after protests by sacked oil workers in the western town of Zhanaozen erupted into clashes in which at least 16 people were killed.
Someone or other wanted to turn this to their advantage, to use the Zhanaozen events for political gain, Nazarbayev said.
Residents of Zhanaozen gave their answer: nearly 70 percent voted for Nur Otan, he said to rapturous applause at a victory rally in a sports centre. Popular musicians sang and ticker-tape rained down on thousands of jubilant party members.
Nazarbayev had overruled a decision by the constitutional council to cancel the election in Zhanaozen, part of a public show of support for the oil workers after the riots. He also fired several high-ranking officials, including his son-in-law.
A state of emergency remains in place in the town. Black-clad police armed with rifles patrolled the streets as voters braved a blizzard to cast their ballots at a school next door to a burnt-out electronics store ransacked during the riots.
Nur Otan won 81 percent of the nationwide vote, while two other parties broadly sympathetic to the government reached the 7 percent threshold required to enter parliament.
By finishing second on 7.5 percent, the pro-business Ak Zhol party would have won seats regardless after changes to electoral law guaranteed the end of one-party rule. The Communist People's Party of Kazakhstan also squeezed in, with 7.2 percent.
CRITICAL OPPONENTS BARRED
Stability in Kazakhstan had been upset by a series of Islamist-inspired attacks even before the riots in Zhanaozen, which also spread to other parts of the Mangistau region.
Kazakhstan's leaders are also wary after mass protests greeted a disputed election last month in Russia, still the country's biggest trading partner and a cultural reference point for its millions of Russian-speaking citizens.
The gap between rich and poor is too big. We shouldn't have splendour and squalor side-by-side, said Valentina, a pensioner in Kazakhstan's commercial capital and largest city Almaty, where voter turnout of 41 percent was the lowest in the country.
Despite official claims of a transparent election, critics of Nazarbayev have cried foul after being excluded from the vote. Politician Bolat Abilov said his All-National Social Democratic Party was the only true opposition party represented.
Abilov was removed from his party list for an incomplete asset declaration. His party polled 1.6 percent to finish fourth of seven parties.
Amirzhan Kosanov, secretary-general of the Social Democrats, said he doubted the veracity of the polls. If there are mass falsifications, we will express our views in a protest against this sort of election, he said.
Membership of Ak Zhol has risen rapidly since its founder left Nur Otan last year. The Communist People's Party also refrains from criticising the government.
The similarly named but distinct Communist Party, fiercely critical of the government, was ineligible to participate due to a suspension. Another critical movement, Alga!, has consistently failed to secure official registration as a political party.
The OSCE mission said it was concerned about the exclusion of some parties and candidates.
If Kazakhstan is serious about their stated goals of increasing the number of parties in parliament, then the country should have allowed more genuine opposition parties to participate, said Joao Soares, leader of the short-term mission and head of the delegation of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
Nationwide turnout among Kazakhstan's 9.3 million registered voters was 75 percent, the Central Election Commission said.
By rubber-stamping Nazarbayev's policies, Nur Otan is viewed by many as the best guarantor of the stability that has set Kazakhstan apart from its restive and poorer neighbours.
Five times the size of France, the country holds 3 percent of global oil reserves, is the world's largest uranium miner and has attracted more than $120 billion (78 billion pound) in foreign investment since independence. Per capita GDP rivals that of Turkey or Mexico.
Nazarbayev has said the nearly $75 billion accumulated in foreign currency reserves and a National Fund for windfall oil revenues may be needed to fend off a looming economic crisis.
(Additional reporting by Mariya Gordeyeva and Robin Paxton in Almaty; Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Janet Lawrence)