Kazakhstan to hold early presidential elections in April

By bne IntelliNews February 4, 2011

Clare Nuttall in Almaty -

After abandoning plans to hold a referendum to extend President Nursultan Nazarbayev's rule rather than an election, Kazakhstan will now hold the presidential poll on April 3, a year earlier than originally scheduled.

Kazakhstan's long-standing President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed a decree setting the early election date after rejecting plans to replace the 2012 election with a referendum that could have kept him in power until December 2020.

In January, both of Kazakhstan's houses of parliament had voted unanimously in favour of the referendum. However, on January 31 the Constitutional Council declared the plan was in violation of the country's constitution. Later that day, Nazarbayev announced he would not use his presidential veto to overturn the council's decision. "Guided by the country's highest interests, I decided not to hold the referendum," he said in a televised address on February 1.

On February 2, the parliament voted in favour of amendments to the constitution that would allow him to call early elections.

Walk like an Egyptian

The plan to replace the 2012 presidential elections with a referendum on whether Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since independence in 1991, should remain in power until 2020, was first broached in December. Supporters of the plan claimed to have rapidly collected signatures from over 5m people - more than half the Kazakhstani electorate.

Speculation is as to why the referendum plan, which would have seriously damaged Kazakhstan's international reputation, was allowed to gather so much momentum before being abandoned is rife. It is believed to have been a move by top Kazakh officials to maintain the status quo while a successor to 70-year-old Nazarbayev was found. The president's opposition to the plan may have been strengthened by the violent protests against President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

Nazarbayev has already indicated he will stand in the next election, and is virtually certain to win it. "I have received a signal from the people - don't leave office, continue working," the president said in his annual state of the nation speech on January 28. "If my health allows me, and if I have the support of the people, I will work as long as I am allowed to."

The referendum plans caused an international outcry against Kazakhstan, which held the rotating presidency of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010. The OSCE's chairperson-in-office, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Ažubalis, welcomed Nazarbayev's decision not to hold the referendum.

Meanwhile the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Catherine Ashton, commented that: "Nazarbayev performed an action that would serve the long-term interests of Kazakhstan. Early presidential elections, which I hope will be free and fair, should be the basis for further confirmation by Kazakhstan of its compliance with generally accepted democratic standards."

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