Kazakhstan is buzzing with speculation in the wake of a proposal floated earlier in September to make Nursultan Nazarbayev president for life. The timing of the suggestion is just a little awkward for Astana, given that Kazakhstan will soon take over the chair of Europe's leading democratization group -- the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The proposal was floated on September 14 by Darkhan Kaletayev, deputy leader of the Nur Otan Party. Kaletayev specifically suggested that experts should examine the feasibility of drawing up legislation, tentatively titled "On the Leader of the Nation," which might contain "provisions for the lifelong nature of [Nazarbayev's] presidency." Nazarbayev is the recognized leader of Nur Otan, which controls all elected seats in the lower house of parliament. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"The head of our state is the acknowledged leader of the country, enjoying the universal support of the people of Kazakhstan," said Kaletayev, attempting to justify his proposal.
Opposition leaders went ballistic over the suggestion that Nazarbayev should be freed from the most fundamental of democratic checks against executive excess. Some issued dire warnings about Kazakhstan's future if the president-for-life concept became reality. The move, the Azat Party said in a statement, is "an attempt under the guise of a lifelong presidency to establish khan-style absolutism in the country."
The unregistered Alga! movement adopted a similar view, qualifying the move as "the start of another stage in a creeping coup d'etat whose aim is to strengthen Nursultan Nazarbayev's personal power and turn the Republic of Kazakhstan into a khanate." National Social Democratic Party Zharmakhan Tuyakbay, meanwhile, challenged Nazarbayev to "forbid such absurd proposals, which will take the country up a blind alley, into the medieval age."
Kaletayev's remarks came days after two academics in the western Aktobe Region, Zakratdin Baydasov and Yuliya Savchenko, called for Nazarbayev to remain in office for life. "Dear Nursultan Abishevich, the people of Kazakhstan have always voted for you, you always work for the good of the people and the whole country," the presidential press service quoted them as saying during a September 10 visit by Nazarbayev. "We consider that in the future there is no need to hold presidential elections. You should always run Kazakhstan and head the country."
The presidential administration has denied being behind the president-for-life trial balloon. "This is the initiative of specific people, and also the initiative of members of the intelligentsia and a political party. This is in no way the initiative of authorities," Maulen Ashimbayev, deputy head of the presidential administration, said on September 23 in remarks quoted by the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency. Ashimbayev stressed that the issue was not on the administration's agenda.
No one in Kazakhstan would dispute the fact that Nazarbayev enjoys widespread public backing, though it falls somewhat short of the "universal support" cited by Kaletayev. Officially, Nazarbayev received 91 percent of the vote in the last presidential election in 2005, which was declared flawed by international observers. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Recent polls show Nazarbayev's approval rating remains high: research conducted in May by Baltic Surveys Ltd. and The Gallup Organization indicated he enjoys the support of 84 percent of the population.
Within the context of Kazakhstan's upcoming OSCE chairmanship, the notion that the country should dispense with presidential elections sparked astonishment in some quarters. The very suggestion, coming at this point in time, "means discrediting the president himself," Tuyakbay said.
Observers wondered if the proposal was aired so Nazarbayev could publicly veto it ahead of the chairmanship in order to burnish his democratic credentials. Others suggested it may be a serious bid for a lifetime presidency, intended to put an end to infighting among various factions trying to position themselves for succession.
Whatever the underlying motivation, the idea runs counter to the standards to which Astana purports to be aspiring, the Delovaya Nedelya business weekly commented: "[The Nur Otan] party elite's new initiative for a lifelong presidency directly contradicts [Nazarbayev's] plans for a European path for Kazakhstan and the OSCE chairmanship," the commentary stated. "Why are we equating ourselves not with Europe but with Turkmenistan?"
Such sentiment resonated widely on the streets of Almaty, where some passersby seemed quick to make a connection to Turkmenistan's late president for life, Saparmurat Niyazov, whose eccentricities made headlines around the world. "On one hand, [the proposal] could be supported. ? He suits us," said an elderly man who asked to remain anonymous. "But on the other hand, one person cannot [rule] for his whole life. ... This is like Turkmenbashy [Niyazov]."
A nearby vegetable seller disagreed. "Let him carry on working," said the woman, who gave only her first name, Gulmira. "He's doing everything possible and it's good. I support him."
Nazarbayev has been at the helm of the country for two decades -- he took the reins of Soviet Kazakhstan in 1989, standing unopposed in an election to become president at independence two years later. He was re-elected by large majorities in 1999 and 2005, and was due to stand down at the next election in 2012. However, he is now eligible to stand in that poll: term limits were abolished for him personally in a controversial constitutional amendment in 2007. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The opposition is adamant that Nazarbayev should retire. "Twenty years of one man's unchanging rule has dealt colossal damage to the development of all aspects of Kazakhstan's life," the Azat Party statement argued.
Many Almaty residents took a more benign view of Nazarbayev's record, but many expressed reservations about a lifetime presidency. "I like him, but I think it's not a good idea [for him] to stay," Aray, an 18-year-old student who has never known another leader, told EurasiaNet. "Maybe the next president will give us something new."
Saule Bulebayeva, who works in a higher education establishment in Almaty, had a similar perspective. "There should be a rotation," she said. "A new generation should come and bring new ideas."
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.