June 13 (UPI) -- This week's presidential election in Kazakhstan marked a peaceful transition of executive power. For the first time since the dissolution of the USSR, following the surprise resignation of President Nursultan Nazarbayev in March, the country elected a new president. A team of independent observers from the United States, which I led, provided presence on the ground for this historic election and reaffirmed the strength of U.S.-Kazakhstan relations.
The country the size of Western Europe is landlocked between Russia and China and boasts massive reserves of oil, gas, uranium and millions of acres of agricultural land. American business is welcome in Kazakhstan, and it plays an increasingly important diplomatic role as a neutral ground and an intermediary, punching above its weight.
It's important to assess the election in the broader context of the significant political, economic and social reforms taking place in Kazakhstan. Over the past two decades, Nazarbayev embraced the market economy and welcomed foreign investment. Younger Kazakhstanis of all ethnic groups, men and women, have enjoyed expanded opportunities to speak their minds and influence public policy, as the country's prosperity grew. We expect these trends to continue, and indeed accelerate, under new President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, an experienced leader, diplomat and a polyglot.
This year, seven candidates competed for the presidency, including the first woman to be nominated in Kazakhstan. Dania Espaeva, who met with our group, beat five male candidates in her own party to get the nomination. During our mission, we had the opportunity to speak with the seven candidates or the heads of their campaigns. All said that they faced no restrictions on their campaigns other than those applicable to all candidates. All said they would trust the national vote count. All expressed optimism about a vibrant, open political future in Kazakhstan.
Yet, the election day was not perfect. Democracy in the post-Soviet Central Asia does not spring overnight. It was marred by the demonstrators' violence against police, and the law enforcement's reaction, which included mass arrests of protesters, detention of journalists and a rolling Internet shutdown. It appears that Islamists and a rent-a-mob reportedly hired by a fugitive billionaire also participated in protests.
A report of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observer mission was highly critical of the election, claiming "significant irregularities were observed on election day." Yet all six losing candidates recognized Tokayev's election. His margin of victory (70 percent on 77 percent national turnout) was so large that the shortcomings the OSCE highlighted would not have affected the outcome.
Look deeper into the results, however, and it's easy to see that despite the impressive overall margin, this was by far the most competitive election in Kazakhstan's history and very probably the entire region. The runner-up, Amirzhan Kosanov, with whom we met, performed very well among younger voters and in the larger cities. Indeed, at two well-off precincts in the capital at which our team monitored the vote count, Tokayev lost -- something that was unthinkable at the last election four years ago. His party observers and the supporters of opposition candidates got a taste of democracy. Once whetted, that appetite for democracy will only grow as Kazakhstan's political space becomes more open and competitive.
Even before the election, Tokayev recognized that the winds of political change were coming to the country. The "economics first, politics second" policies of the last two decades bore fruit, and rising incomes have led to greater demands for political openness. I expect that Tokayev will pursue reforms, improving the judiciary, cutting red tape, fighting poverty and corruption and further reforms leading to a more competitive political environment.
Still, the OSCE report will spring a debate in Kazakhstan, which is a proud member of the OSCE, and chaired the organization in 2010. The government has pledged to review the report and strives to address serious shortcomings in the campaign process. Yet at the precincts we witnessed, the election organization and counts were very professional, equal to U.S. standards.
This is my sixth election observation mission to Kazakhstan since 2004. At each poll, I have seen standards rise and the electoral process improve. There's no reason to doubt that the trend will continue, particularly with younger Kazakhstanis demanding a greater role as their country undergoes a generational transformation of leadership.
Pay attention to Kazakhstan, an important country for the United States and for global security. This week's election was good news overall.
Daniel A. Witt is president of the International Tax and Investment Center. He observed this week's election in Kazakhstan, which he has done five times since the 1990s, with an independent group of individuals with long ties to the country. He has worked in Central Asia on tax and investment reforms since 1993 and co-chaired the only U.S. independent observer group to Kazakhstan's presidential elections.