Kazakhstan's upcoming election has all the trappings of a bona fide presidential race: three candidates from different parties all vying to unseat an incumbent; streets adorned with campaign posters; election monitors on the ground; and calls made to get out the vote.
But that's where any comparison to a real race ends. With less than two weeks to go before the April 3 vote, it is looking more and more like the election campaign that wasn't there.
The incumbent, Nursultan Nazarbaev, needs no introduction. The 70-year-old has led the oil-rich Central Asian country for more than two decades.
His office announced the early election, originally scheduled for 2012, after a proposed citizens’ referendum to extend his term to 2020 was rejected by the Constitutional Council.
Nazarbaev, himself, has said he will not campaign. He said he has already outlined his views and policies in an address to the nation on January 28.
The three candidates he is running against are given virtually no chance of winning. Some have essentially admitted that this is not a genuine contest, to the point of openly expressing their support for Nazarbaev.
In a report issued on March 21, the election observer mission of OSCE/ODIHR assessed the campaign environment this way. "Thus far, only the campaign for the incumbent is highly visible," the report noted. Efforts are being made to call on citizens to vote, with billboards displaying portraits of the president and performances of pop singers under way."
The reported stated that campaigns of the other candidates "are less visible, although they have started holding events and some billboards and posters are in evidence."
OSCE/ODIHR noted "significant" legal shortcomings in the electoral process, citing restrictions on potential candidates and on freedom of assembly, and flaws in a mandatory Kazakh language-proficiency exam used to vet potential candidates.
Besides Nazarbaev, the three who were approved as official candidates are Zhambul Akhmetbekov of the Communist People's Party; Mels Eleusizov, the chairman of the Tabigat (Nature) Ecological Union; and Gani Kasymov, a senator and leader of the Patriots Party.
The 60-year-old Eleusizov, who contested the 2005 presidential vote and numerous parliamentary elections with no success, harbors no illusion of winning. From the beginning he has said he entered the presidential contest to raise people's awareness about environmental issues.
"Of course, at the moment, it's impossible to win the presidency," he told journalists after being registered as a candidate in early April. "I take a very realistic view of things."
Kasymov, who is considered the strongest of the three also-rans, has named Nazarbaev among the people who he says have most inspired him.
Observers don't need to look much further than Akhmetbekov's affiliation with the Communist People's Party, a pro-presidential party, to see that he doesn’t pose a real threat to unseat the president.
Real Opposition Sitting It Out
Nazarbaev's real opposition is sitting this election out, either by choice or because they failed to pass the vetting process. Some have said the unexpected early date of the vote left them without enough time to launch a campaign.
The opposition parties Azat, Ak Jol, and Ruhaniyat were among those who announced they would not participate in the election.
The unregistered Alga Party, the Communist Party, and several civil society groups, including "Ar. Rukh. Khak" and "Aman-saulyk," are calling on voters to boycott the election.
During a recent rally in Almaty, Alga Party leader Vladimir Kozlov listed reasons why he think people should not vote. “First of all,” he said, they need to explain to others “the real meaning of what is going on in the country and convince them not to take part.” And then they need to “record violations during the pre-election campaign and on election day."
Alga and Communist Party activists have staged protest demonstrations in several regions as well as in Almaty, the country's biggest city.
Opposition supporters have also been using the Internet to get their messages across, including an online campaign calling on Nazarbaev to resign.
Andrei Chebotarev, the head of the Alternativa think tank in Almaty, notes that in previous elections, opposition candidates at least entered the race.
"[This election] is very different,” he said. “Firstly, because of the absence of leading opposition representatives. And then, the ongoing campaign is far too sluggish."
Chebotarev said he questions the wisdom of some groups' decision to boycott the election.
He said it’s possible that the opposition parties want to focus on future elections.
However, he said, taking part in this election “would give them an opportunity to raise their profile."
RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report