Former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev votes during the parliamentary election in Astana, Kazakhstan, on March 19.
Millions of voters in Kazakhstan are heading to parliamentary polls on March 19 as the country looks to complete a political cycle after bloody unrest last year left at least 238 people dead.
Some 12 million people are eligible to vote in the elections to the 98-seat lower house that are taking place at the same time as local elections across the vast, oil-rich country.
The vote follows a referendum in June that marked the end of special privileges for long-reigning former leader Nursultan Nazarbaev and snap presidential elections in November that handed 69-year-old incumbent Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev a fresh seven-year presidential term.
The early elections will be the first since 2004 in which candidates without party affiliations can stand for seats in the lower house, called the Mazhilis, as part of a package of electoral reforms initiated by Toqaev in the wake of the unrest in January 2022.
But only 29 of the parliament’s seats are available to the single-mandate candidates, with the rest reserved for party list candidates.
With socioeconomic pressures such as strident inflation compounded by Russia’s war in Ukraine, authorities are aiming to prevent a repeat of the 2022 events now known as Bloody January.
Earlier this week, Toqaev signed a law strengthening punishment for individuals calling for mass disorder -- a crime authorities often equate with calls for spontaneous protests, which are illegal.
According to the law, the punishment for such actions will rise from three years to up to seven years in prison, with the possibility of early release on parole excluded for individuals convicted on the charge.
Toqaev has admitted issuing a "shoot to kill" order to troops last year when peaceful protests against a fuel price spike gave way to violent clashes in cities across the country.
The return of single-mandate district races has added some dynamism to a ballot dominated by system candidates in a country where no elections have been deemed free or fair by international election monitors since Kazakhstan gained independence more than 30 years ago.
But several opposition-minded figures have been excluded from races at the parliament and city council level on administrative pretexts, while others complained of government pressure on their campaigns.
Of the seven parties competing, the most well-established is the ruling Amanat party, a renamed version of the Nur Otan party bossed by octogenarian Nazarbaev, who remained powerful even after stepping down and allowing Toqaev to succeed him in 2019.
Last year’s crisis effectively ended the political career of Nazarbaev, who relinquished his remaining positions to Toqaev, while denying rumors of a rift with his protege.
Two new parties, Respublica and Baitaq, became the first parties in two decades to be allowed to officially register in the months before the vote.
But like the other pro-establishment parties on the ballot, neither has been critical of Toqaev during the campaign.
Polls open at 7 a.m. Almaty and Astana time and will close at 8 p.m.