The result of yesterday's election in Kazakhstan was such a foregone conclusion that even one of the opposition candidates said he had voted for the incumbent.

Official results today were expected to showed a landslide majority for Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has run the country since the break-up of the Soviet Union and is accused by critics of being a dictator with a poor human rights record.

Exit polls predicted his tally at about 95.5 per cent and an astonishingly high 90 per cent turnout. Early voters and 18-year-olds casting their ballot for the first time were rewarded with household goods, such as food blenders and electric kettles.

Nazarbayev, 70, has high approval ratings in the steppe nation of about 16 million people, but he tolerates little dissent. Opposition politicians and journalists complain of harassment and sometimes violence used to keep them quiet.

Nazarbayev also faces allegations of corruption, as members of his family have become some of the richest people in the country. No elections held in Kazakhstan have ever been judged free and fair by international monitors, but global business has been keen to court the country because of its vast reserves of oil and gas.

In the last election, in 2005, Nazarbayev won more than 90 per cent of the vote. One of the President's three nominal challengers, the environmentalist Mels Yeleusizov, said he himself had voted for Nazarbayev. "He is the winner. It was kind of a sports event," he said after casting his ballot in Almaty.

The constitution was changed in 2007 to allow Nazarbayev to stand as many times as he likes for the job. He has also been made "Leader of the Nation", a title that means he will be able to veto legislation even when he retires. Analysts say that yesterday's election, called two years early, was meant to buy Nazarbayev more time to groom a successor.

No other politician has built up a political profile and there are fears in Nazarbayev's circle that if he becomes ill there could be a messy fight for power.

Nazarbayev is often described by Western observers as "the best of a bad bunch" among the leaders of Central Asia, as he has at least presided over a period of economic growth for his country. The situation in Uzbekistan is much worse, with widespread poverty and few opportunities.

- INDEPENDENT, AP