Clare Nuttall in Almaty -
Both houses of the Kazakh parliament on January 14 voted unanimously in favour of holding a referendum that will most likely see President Nursultan Nazarbayev's term in office extended for another decade.
The 2012 and 2019 presidential elections will be cancelled. Instead, a referendum will be held on whether Nazarbayev should remain the head of state until December 6, 2020. A date for the referendum has not yet been set.
International observers including the US government, the EU, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have criticised the plans, which will effectively leave the Kazakhstani population without presidential elections for 15 years. Local human rights organisations also called on the president not to allow the 2012 election to be cancelled.
Nazarbayev originally vetoed the plans on January 7. However, his decision was overruled by the unanimous vote in both houses of parliament, which contain no deputies from opposition parties. Under Kazakh law, it is now impossible for the president to veto the legislation again.
More than 5m people - over half the 9m registered voters in Kazakhstan - have signed petitions in support of the referendum, according to the Central Electoral Committee. Just 200,000 signatures are needed for a referendum to be called. Nazarbayev does enjoy a high level of popularity in Kazakhstan, and was virtually certain to have won the 2012 election had he decided to stand.
Lack of alternatives
Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. His current seven-year term was due to come to an end in 2012, and many observers had expected the 70-year-old president to stand down. However, it is believed that speculation he was preparing to retire, together with the absence of a clear successor, had caused rival elites to start fighting for prominence behind the scenes. One of Kazakhstan's key selling points to investors is the country's long-standing political stability - another reason for the decision to prolong Nazarbayev's rule while a successor is found.
International observers have criticised the move. Speaking in Vienna on January 13, the day before the parliament vote, the US Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Ian Kelly, described the decision to cancel elections in favour of a referendum as a "step backwards" from the country's OSCE commitments to establishing democracy, holding periodic free and fair elections, and respecting the rule of law. Kazakhstan held the OSCE's revolving presidency in 2010, and reaffirmed its OSCE commitments at the Astana summit in December.
The OSCE's human rights chief, Janez Lenarcic, said it was "particularly distressing" that the referendum initiative appeared only weeks after the summit. "A referendum can never be a substitute for periodic elections," Lenarcic told a Nato session in Warsaw on January 14. "It does not offer a genuine choice between political alternatives and would infringe on the opportunity of citizens to hold their representatives accountable and to effectively exercise their right to vote and be elected."
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