Kazakhstan moved a step closer January 14 toward extending the rule of President Nursultan Nazarbayev with a parliamentary vote overriding a presidential veto. The move means that a referendum to extend Nazarbayev’s presidential term to 2020 will proceed. Experts expect voters to overwhelmingly approve the extension.
Prolonging Nazarbayev’s term until 2020 would effectively install the 70-year-old leader as president-for-life. A special joint session of both houses of parliament voted unanimously to alter the constitution so that Nazarbayev’s term could be extended.
Voters will be asked if they back the idea of extending Nazarbayev’s term to December 6, 2020. No date has been set for the referendum, but March has previously been mooted for it.
Both houses of parliament had previously voted for the measure but Nazarbayev vetoed it on January 6. Parliament was legally able to override that veto with at least a four-fifths majority in both houses.
The Central Electoral Commission has validated a massive 5.16 million signatures in support of the bid. The signatures were gathered in less than three weeks after the idea was first publicly proposed on December 23 by an initiative group of citizens. The figure represents 55 percent of the electorate and far exceeds the 200,000 signatures legally required to launch a referendum bid.
Supporters of the plan to keep Nazarbayev in office say his leadership is needed to ensure a steady hand is at Kazakhstan’s helm during the decade ahead.
Presidential adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbayev said last fall that Nazarbayev planned to stand in the next election, due in 2012, which would have kept him in office until 2017 – but at the same time Yertysbayev dropped a hint that the president was eyeing the next 10 years. “A decisive decade lies ahead and we will, I am convinced, go through this period with our president,” Yertysbayev said last September.
Nazarbayev has already governed Kazakhstan for over two decades: He became leader of the Soviet republic in 1989, and president of the independent state in 1991. He has only stood twice in contested elections: In 1991 he ran unopposed, in 1995 his term was extended by referendum, and in 1999 and 2005 he won landslide victories in presidential polls. Kazakhstan has never held an election judged free and fair by international observers.
On January 12 the initiative group promoting the referendum published an appeal to Nazarbayev urging him to go ahead with it. “The will of the people is sacred to you and you have never allowed anyone to ignore it,” it said. “You have dedicated your whole life to serving the people and our motherland.”
Yertysbayev has said Nazarbayev is ready for elections, but that he would bow to the will of parliament and call a nationwide plebiscite if it overrode his veto.
Nazarbayev’s own party, Nur Otan, which holds all the elected seats in the Mazhilis (lower house of parliament), has formed a coalition called Kazakhstan-2020 to back the bid to keep him in power. The Adilet party – which positions itself as a constructive opposition movement, but adopts a non-critical stance on Nazarbayev – has joined it, but mainstream opposition parties OSDP Azat and Ak Zhol vociferously oppose the referendum.
The idea has received blanket coverage in Kazakhstan’s state media, but one newspaper taking a critical line, Golos Respubliki, had its print run seized overnight January 13-14, recalling previous newspaper seizures from critics. The initiative to extend Nazarbayev’s rule – which many observers believe is being orchestrated from the very top – has also provoked an international outcry. On January 13, Washington reiterated its previous expressions of concern with a statement to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which Kazakhstan chaired last year.
US Ambassador to the OSCE Ian Kelly voiced the “grave concern” of the United States over the bid to cancel the 2012 presidential election, describing it as a “setback for democracy” and “a step backwards from Kazakhstan’s OSCE commitments to establishing democracy, holding periodic free and fair elections, and respecting the rule of law.”
The president’s supporters have brushed US concerns aside, and Yertysbayev says he believes Western leaders are tacitly in favor of Nazarbayev remaining in office. The bid’s backers credit the president with political stability, economic growth and ethnic harmony in Kazakhstan and say he merits an extended term.
Nazarbayev already enjoys extra privileges under Kazakh law, including an exemption from the usual two constitutional term limits and special powers under the Leader of the Nation bill passed last year. The amendments passed by parliament on January 14 also enshrine his Leader of the Nation status in the constitution.
Many commentators believed the Leader of the Nation law was intended to pave the way for Nazarbayev’s imminent retirement. However, no clear successor has emerged, and there are powerful figures within the establishment who see him as the guarantor of their own interests and are keen to keep him in office. “I am convinced that Nursultan Abishevich will be president until 2020, because that is the demand of the time and the desire of the people,” Mazhilis deputy Yerlan Nigmatulin told parliament during the January 14 debate.
Analysts point out, though, that the plan could easily be upset by factors beyond the control of Nazarbayev and his entourage. Failing health or the death of the president in office could prompt a destabilizing battle over the succession, with an uncertain outcome.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.