Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, came up with a confounding response January 31 to critics of the Central Asian nation’s democratization process: snap presidential elections.
Nazarbayev had come under criticism from abroad over an effort to extend his presidential term until 2020. Addressing the nation in the evening of January 31 after Kazakhstan’s Constitutional Council issued a ruling that declared the idea of a referendum on extending the president’s term unconstitutional, Nazarbayev said he believed the best solution was to hold a presidential vote almost two years ahead of schedule.
“Instead of a choice that divides us of ‘either a referendum or elections,’ I propose a formula that unites us, which takes account of the will of our people and fidelity to democratic principles,” he said. “I am putting forward a proposal to hold an early presidential election, despite the fact that with this my term of office is reduced by almost two years.”
The next presidential election was scheduled for December 2012, and Nazarbayev – who is personally exempt from term limits – had let it be known that he would stand. In December his supporters launched a bid to hold a referendum to dispense with that election, and the next one due in 2017, keeping Nazarbayev in office until 2020.
The initiative was passed by parliament, then vetoed by Nazarbayev. His veto was overridden by a parliamentary vote on January 14, after which he asked the Constitutional Council to weigh in on the issue. Nazarbayev said he backed the council’s rejection of the referendum, and that a law would soon be sent to parliament on holding an early presidential election. Parliament, which is packed with presidential loyalists, is almost certain to pass the needed legislation.
Nazarbayev – who enjoys the title of Leader of the Nation with accompanying extra privileges – said his proposal was an attempt to resolve “a difficult political situation, when I as head of state must personally assume the burden of historical responsibility and make a decision on the fate of the referendum.”
The idea was backed by 5.16 million signatures, or roughly 55 percent of the electorate, but many analysts saw the hand of the president and his entourage behind what was promoted as a grassroots venture. “On one hand, I cannot reject the nationwide initiative of the overwhelming majority of voters. However, on the other hand, as president and guarantor of the constitution, I cannot create a precedent which will set incorrect reference points for the next generations of politicians,” Nazarbayev said.
No date has been proposed for the early election. Nazarbayev – who has been in office for two decades – enjoys genuine popular support and will almost certainly win in a landslide. In the 2005 election, he won with 91 percent of the vote, although opposition activists say the president’s voting total was bolstered by fraud. Kazakhstan has never held an election judged free and fair by Western observers.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer specializing in Central Asia.