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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kazakh Election Campaign Heats Up

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Presidential election week has kicked off in Kazakhstan with a media splash for Nursultan Nazarbayev, reinforcing the impression the president is poised to win a comfortable victory Sunday.

Kazakhstanskaya Pravda daily devoted its front page to the 58-year-old leader, who has led the resource-rich Central Asian state of 16 million people since it was a Soviet republic, when he was its Communist Party boss.

Nazarbayev, a former metalworker, made a controversial decision to bring the poll forward from the year 2000, giving little time for his opponents to mount serious campaigns in a country where the political opposition has been weak since independence from Moscow in 1991.

His control over the media, most of which depends on the state for funding, appears to have widened the gap between Nazarbayev and his three rivals, all of whom are little known.

Nazarbayev's move to reschedule elections was criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and by the United States, because it gave members of an already weak opposition little time to mount a challenge.

They also slammed the government for preventing former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin from running in the ballot over a minor administrative offense. Considerable air time during the holidayswas devoted to Nazarbayev's candidacy, particularly on the powerful Khabar television channel, which is run by his daughter Dariga.

Commercial breaks during films were filled with dispatches from Kazakh regions, quoting local academics, sports instructors and drivers giving their reasons for supporting the president.

And a five-part series on his life began Monday evening in the run-up to Sunday's vote.

Nazarbayev said in Kazakhstanskaya Pravda that he was confident of the support of the population.

"I am sure that Kazakhs will vote for political stability, for friendship among nations in our country, for a stronger government and for an improvement in people's living standards," he said.

The newspaper also ran a front-page story quoting letters of support from, among others, former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. The only other candidate to get a mention, in a small piece on the second page, was Gani Kasymov, chairman of the State Customs Committee and so far Nazarbayev's main, if distant, rival.

Opinion polls show the other two runners, Communist Serikbolshyn Abdildin and member of the upper house of parliament Engels Gabbasov, are unlikely to figure strongly in the ballot.

Nazarbayev attacked his three opponents for what he called populist economic policies that would spell ruin for country.