The day was marked by the biggest protests the Muslim-majority country has seen in three years

Almaty (Kazakhstan) (AFP) - Kazakhstan on Sunday elected the hand-picked successor of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev with 70 percent of the vote, exit polls showed, as police arrested hundreds of opposition protesters.

The victory of career diplomat Kassym Jomart-Tokayev was never in doubt after he received the blessing of powerful Nazarbayev, who had led the Central Asian nation for the last three decades.

Tokayev, 66, took just over 70 percent of the vote, according to the government-approved “Public Opinion” pollster. His nearest opposition rival Amirzhan Kosanov had around 15 percent.

But the day was marked by the biggest protests the Muslim-majority country has seen in three years, as demonstrators urged a “boycott” of what they said was a fixed election.

Turnout in the election was around 77 percent, according to the Central Election Commission

The build-up to the vote saw an intensifying crackdown on the opposition with courts sentencing protesters to short stays in jail and police raiding activists’ homes.

The interior ministry said around 500 people were arrested on Sunday, with deputy minister Marat Kozhayev blaming “radical elements” for holding “unsanctioned” rallies.

Two AFP journalists were among those detained in the largest city, Almaty, where police broke up a protest involving several hundred people.

Hundreds of arrests were made in Kazakhstan's two main cities Nur-Sultan and Almaty

Protesters shouted “shame, shame, shame!” and “police come to the side of the people” as officers moved in on the crowd.

Aman Amanov, a protester in Almaty, asked an AFP journalist to “show this video all over the world” as the correspondent filmed him being ushered into a police van.

“You can see what is happening here. People are against this illegal election,” he said. “You can see what the police are doing here!”

One AFP correspondent was taken to a police station before being released while another had video equipment confiscated.

Marzhan Aspandiyarova, a civic activist who visited police stations in Almaty Sunday evening said that protesters who had been held for over 12 hours had not been fed, while most had been denied access to their mobile phones.

“We have seen some first aid vehicles arrive at one district and colleagues say the same is happening in other districts. This suggests the condition of the detainees is worsening,” Aspandiyarova told AFP.

Journalists for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and an independent local news site were also arrested, as was a representative of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee rights group and a local political analyst.

They were all later released.

- Nazarbayev ‘still in power’ -

Nazarbayev’s announcement in March that he was stepping down from the presidency and naming Toyakev interim leader shocked Kazakhs who had lived under his rule since Soviet times.

Tokayev was never in doubt after he received the blessing of his powerful predecessor Nazarbayev

But the 78-year-old, who turned the country of 18 million people into an energy powerhouse while governing with little tolerance for opposition, is still expected to call the shots from behind the scenes.

As he voted, Tokayev told reporters in the capital Nur-Sultan that Nazarbayev was “still in power in the capacity of chairman of the security council… and other capacities”.

In Nur-Sultan, a 31-year-old woman who gave her first name Meiramgul, admitted that she only knew Tokayev and was still deciding whether or not she would vote.

“I don’t think my vote will count for anything,” she told AFP.

Turnout in the election was around 77 percent, the Central Election Commission said earlier in the day.

- Transition ‘an illusion’ -

Four years ago Nazarbayev scored nearly 98 percent of a virtually uncontested vote where the official turnout was 95 percent.

Map of Kazakhstan where presidential elections will be held Sunday.

No Kazakh vote has ever been recognised as fully democratic by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which sent more than 300 observers to monitor this election.

One of Tokayev’s first acts as interim president was to propose that the capital Astana – which Nazarbayev transformed from a steppe town into a million-strong city – be renamed “Nur-Sultan” in honour of his mentor.

The change went ahead without public consultation.

Opposition supporters rally during Kazakhstan's presidential elections in Nur-Sultan

There was only one candidate who was openly in opposition in the race.

Journalist Amirzhan Kosanov has criticised the government, but even these rebukes were vague, rather than directly attacking either Tokayev or Nazarbayev.

Human Rights Watch called the prospect of a genuine political transition “an illusion” and noted the persistence of rights abuses under Tokayev’s interim presidency.

“Kazakh authorities routinely break up peaceful protests, forcibly round up participants… and sanction them with warnings, fines, and short-term imprisonment,” the watchdog said.