Nazarbayev, who had run the oil-rich former Soviet republic for almost three decades before stepping down in March, and retains sweeping powers, chose the 66-year-old diplomat as his successor, making the outcome of the vote all but certain.
Hundreds of people protested on Sunday, criticising the election as undemocratic. But the smooth transition is positive news for its neighbours Russia and China as well as for foreign energy and mining companies who have invested hundreds of billions of dollars in the Central Asian state.
For many of its 12 million registered voters, Tokayev, a former prime minister and foreign minister, was the only familiar face among seven candidates in a brief and uneventful campaign.
Natalya, a pensioner, said after casting her ballot on Sunday that she had voted for the incumbent.
“Well, Nazarbayev is no longer on the ballot and I do not know any of the other candidates,” she said.
Nazarbayev, 78, who holds the official title of Yelbasy, or national leader, and continues to run the ruling Nur Otan party, has routinely taken over 90 percent of the vote in elections described by Western observers as neither free nor fair.
Kazakhstan’s rubber-stamp parliament, whose upper chamber Tokayev chaired before assuming the presidency, is devoid of opposition, and dissent is largely stifled through control of traditional and electronic media and social networks.
Facebook and Telegram, a popular mobile messaging app, were for instance inaccessible early on Sunday in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city.
Still, hundreds people chanting “Shame!” staged protests in Almaty and Nur-Sultan, the capital that was named after Nazarbayev on Tokayev’s suggestion.
Reuters correspondents saw police clad in riot gear detain dozens of demonstrators in each of the two cities as they dispersed the rallies.
Tokayev said after casting has ballot in Nur-Sultan that he was urging both police and protesters to be tolerant and planned to include young activists critical of the government in a “special committee” to promote dialogue.
Tokayev himself said he had no doubt that he would win the election and promised to take guidance from Nazarbayev on strategic matters. Insiders say the men effectively share the presidential palace, although Nazarbayev’s new office is in a different building.
The arrangement under which Nazarbayev effectively remains in charge ensures policy continuity – but also means political uncertainty will linger until he withdraws from politics.
Tokayev appointed some new deputy ministers but eschewed major personnel or policy changes as interim leader.
On the foreign policy side, Tokayev, who studied at an elite Soviet diplomatic school in Moscow and focused on China, is likely to continue Nazarbayev’s policy of balancing between Russia, China and the West.
That approach has helped Kazakhstan attract foreign investment and open up markets for its oil and metals exports.