Kazakhstan's oil and gas reserves, as well as its pivotal location, make it of strategic importance to the United States and its allies. But in the run-up to Kazakhstan's presidential election later this week, the country's contested democratic practices and uncertain transition to the next generation of political leaders leaves its future unclear. Unfortunately, due to Washington's preoccupation with the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan, both Kazakhstan and its upcoming election run the risk of being largely overlooked.


Last month, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev rejected the idea of using a national referendum to extend his term until 2020, despite the fact that half the electorate had signed petitions, later endorsed by the Parliament, calling on him to do so. As a compromise, he proposed an early presidential election that will take place on April 3.


Nazarbayev was very likely influenced by recent events in Tunisia and Egypt. Ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had been re-elected on several occasions though referendums, until he suddenly found that he was no longer a legitimate ruler. The U.S. government rightly welcomed Nazarbayev's move, having earlier said that a referendum would be a "setback for democracy."


Kazakhstan had previously committed itself to upholding democratic values in return for being awarded the rotating chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010. This was the first time a former Soviet republic had chaired the OSCE, let alone one from Central Asia.


Nazarbayev called the decision not to hold a referendum "a historic lesson in democracy, about staying true to the constitution." Nevertheless, the upcoming presidential election remains controversial because it is occurring two years earlier than scheduled. Major opposition parties, some of whom are boycotting the ballot, have complained that the change left them unprepared to wage an effective campaign. Furthermore, the OSCE's preliminary reports cite various flaws with pre-ballot preparations.


Of course, the ultimate test of Kazakhstan's democracy will be the actual conduct of the April 3 election. Since it was scheduled, the Central Election Commission (CEC) and other stakeholders -- including national and international NGOs, political parties and international organizations such as the OSCE Election Observation Mission -- have begun preparing for the ballot. The U.S and its Western partners should make it clear that they will hold Kazakhstan accountable to international standards for free and fair elections, while also demanding improvements from previous ballots.


The overwhelming victory of the Nazarbayev's party, Nur Otan, in the August 2007 elections for the national legislature reinforced concerns about the Kazakh government's commitment to meeting OSCE democratic standards. Though noting some improvements at the time, OSCE election monitors faulted the 2007 elections for failing to meet international standards for a genuinely free and fair vote. OSCE monitors complained about overly restrictive legal provisions, such as the use of a high threshold for representation in the parliament; rules allowing parties to select which of their candidates would assume parliamentary seats after the actual voting; and excessive restrictions on the right to seek public office.


While Kazakhstan has worked with the OSCE to improve its formal election rules, steps need to be taken to make sure they are successfully implemented. In particular, this requires an end to inappropriate meddling in the electoral process by local administrators. Also, instead of reinforcing the natural advantages enjoyed by incumbents, the electoral process should assure that all candidates and parties are able to play on "a level playing field."


Another key issue on election day will be the transparency of the tabulation of the vote. The CEC has promised to publish results broken down by election district, so that these figures can be compared with protocols issued to observers at the polling stations. Prompt release of these figures by the CEC and investigation of discrepancies would demonstrate important progress over previous elections.


Despite its halting advances in democratization, Kazakhstan has made much social and economic progress during the past two decades, thanks to the strategic vision of its leadership. The government also promotes religious harmony at home and abroad, resulting in a moderate and tolerant brand of Islam that represents an example for the kinds of policies other Muslim-dominated countries should pursue.


Access to Caspian oil and gas reserves remains an important factor driving U.S. interests in Kazakhstan. The International Energy Agency forecasts that Kazakhstan's annual oil production will reach approximately 140 million tons by 2020, 190 million tons by 2025, and slightly less than 200 million tons by 2030. If this oil flows westward to Europe, it will go far toward reassuring Western energy security.


But there is far more at stake for both the people of Kazakhstan and the U.S. than just "pipeline politics." Kazakhstan's "multivector" foreign policy, which seeks to pursue cooperative relations with all major powers, leads Astana to resist any hegemonic ambitions by larger countries that would undercut Kazakhstan's political or economic independence. Kazakh leaders have assumed a prominent role in promoting nuclear disarmament, food security and Eurasian integration.


Kazakhstan has also played an important role in multilateral efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, by providing humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people and by opening air and land transit routes for critical NATO supplies through the Northern Distribution Network. And by furthering economic development across Central Asia, Kazakhstan has helped shore up Afghanistan's neighborhood.


Kazakhstan's economy is one of the most successful in both Central Asia and the Muslim world. Although the recent global economic crisis reduced Kazakhstan's oil revenue and weakened the country's financial sector, the Kazakh economy has since recovered. Its remarkably rapid growth is widely shared, reducing disparities between rich and poor and leading to the emergence of a real middle class (.pdf). For these and other reasons, the country has managed to avoid the widespread political and social disorder sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa.


Nonetheless, the absence of a clear succession plan for a post-Nazarbayev transition concerns long-term foreign investors, who have poured more than $120 billion into the country since 1993. After the latest events in the Middle East, Nazarbayev is probably more aware than ever of the need for an orderly succession when he leaves office. The best way to achieve this is to develop Kazakhstan's political institutions and lay the basis for a new leader to achieve legitimacy through the ballot box.


The April 3 election will be a real test of how well OSCE-standard democratic practices have taken root in Kazakhstan. This ballot might be the last such vote before another generation of leaders emerges to move the country further toward a multiparty democratic system (.pdf), in which power is genuinely shared between the president and parliament, and in which all elections are free and fair. Kazakhstan's future stability and security depend on it.


Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a World Politics Review senior editor. His weekly WPR column, Global Insights, appears every Tuesday.


www.worldpoliticsreview.com