Voters in Kazakhstan went to the polls on Saturday in snap Parliamentary elections, seen as a key test of authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbayev's willingness to democratise this vast, oil-rich country.
The first voters cast their ballots shortly after dawn in a poll the opposition hopes will undermine the near monopoly on power of a President, who has ruled since Soviet times.
While the economy of this Central Asian country of 15 million has flourished thanks to surging commodity prices and economic reforms, authorities have yet to hold a single election deemed free and fair by Western election observers.
Officials hope this will change after constitutional reforms presented as creating a more level political playing field in a country that currently boasts only one opposition deputy in the lower house, or Mazhilis.
"Today is another important day in our development as an independent state," President Nazarbayev said after voting in central Astana.
"For the first time we are electing deputies to the Mazhilis under the party system."
"Deputies to the Mazhilis should be elected legally, which is necessary for the strengthening of our state, peace, consensus and well-being."
But with Nazarbayev's supporters dominating the media and all levels of government, party of power Nur Otan is expected to easily win a majority of the 98 seats in the Mazhilis that were to be filled in today's polls.
Two opposition parties, the independent Social-Democratic Party and the less critical Ak Zhol, are seen as having a realistic chance of securing the seven per cent of votes required to enter the lower house.