One question is on practically everyone’s lips these days in Kazakhstan’s two main cities, Almaty and Astana: “Will he or won’t he?” They, of course, are thinking about Nursultan Nazarbayev, and whether he will, despite his own veto of a parliamentary resolution, end up becoming the country’s de-facto president-for-life.
Nazarbayev on January 6 rejected a measure to keep him in power until 2020. By that time he would be 80, and would have been at Kazakhstan’s helm for just over three decades. Nazarbayev’s veto, however, has not halted the momentum of an effort to dispense with presidential elections for the next 10 years. And it seems very possible that his veto will be trumped by a parliamentary override.
If an override does indeed occur, it would follow a precedent established when Nazarbayev received the title “Leader of the Nation.” As is the case with the president-for-life referendum, Nazarbayev vetoed amendments in the spring of 2010 that significantly enhanced his personal authority. The veto appeared motivated by a desire to shape an image of modesty, yet Nazarbayev gladly accepted the enhanced powers when, because of a loophole, the amendments went into effect. Nazarbayev’s actions in this case would likewise give him plausible deniability with which he could deflect likely Western criticism.
“Nazarbayev's decision to reject the proposed referendum probably stems mainly from his wish to be seen to be observing democratic norms, while at the same time reaffirming his widespread public support,” Anna Walker, a Central Asia analyst at London-based Control Risks consultancy, told EurasiaNet.org. “It also gives him an opportunity to burnish his credentials as an international statesman, worthy of a place on the world stage.”
The matter of extending Nazarbayev’s term came up on December 23, when a citizen’s group first proposed a referendum. The issue is far from closed at this point, experts say. “The proposal to hold a referendum may not yet be dead in the water,” Alice Mummery, a Kazakhstan analyst at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, told EurasiaNet.org. “Despite Mr. Nazarbayev's rejection of the plan to hold a national referendum, it could still go ahead.”
Both houses of parliament have already voted unanimously to endorse the referendum idea, and Nazarbayev’s veto simply throws the idea back to a parliament that is packed with his supporters. A joint parliamentary session where the referendum issue is expected to top the agenda has been called for January 14. Parliament can legally override a presidential veto if 80 percent of deputies vote in favor.
If an override vote is held, “the passing of the legislation would be an almost certainty,” says Mummery. Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party holds all elected seats in the Mazhilis (lower house). The Senate, meanwhile, is unquestioningly loyal to the president.
On January 11 the presidential administration signaled that if parliament overrules his veto, Nazarbayev will accept a plebiscite. “The president is ready for elections,” his adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbayev told KazTAG agency. “But if parliament overcomes the veto, the president will be ready to hold a referendum.”
For some observers, the president-for-life referendum is a litmus test of Kazakhstan’s sometimes questionable commitment to democratization. Astana has never held an election deemed fair by international observers, and Nazarbayev (whose term was extended by referendum in 1995) secured a lopsided 91 percent of the vote in the last poll, held in 2005.
The bid to cancel the next election, due in 2012, provoked an outcry, prompting Washington to describe it as a “setback for democracy” on January 4.
The US Embassy in Astana issued a fresh statement following Nazarbayev’s rejection of the initiative, cheering him for acting “as a statesman and as the protector of the constitution,” and pointing to the “profound international implications” of extending his rule – particularly following Kazakhstan’s “historic and successful 2010 chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).”
“With all due respect, we would like to ask that those who might have special and personal interests regarding the current ‘referendum issue’ not take any short-term steps that would violate the constitution of Kazakhstan and, more importantly, that would undercut the historic legacy of Nursultan Abishevich,” the statement urged.
The theme of vested interests was taken up by the leader of the moderate opposition party Ak Zhol, Alikhan Baymenov, who accused the measure’s initiators in a January 10 statement of wishing “to continue living in cozy conditions, resolving their personal problems behind the screen of slogans in support of the First President.”
The referendum is also opposed by the opposition OSDP Azat party. The Adilet party – derided by opponents as a tame opposition movement – backs it.
In advance of the special parliamentary session, the president-for-life referendum has continued to gain momentum. On January 11, the initiative group behind it submitted an astounding 5 million signatures in support to the Central Electoral Commission. That total amounts to over half of Kazakhstan's electorate, and is far above the 200,000 signatures legally required.
Activists allege that a campaign of intimidation has been waged to secure the signatures; organizers point to an outpouring of affection for a popular president.
Opponents have taken to the streets to protest. On January 11, seven activists conducting a symbolic “burial of democracy” were detained at an Almaty rally organized by the Rukh pen Til (Spirituality and Language) movement. Two journalists, meanwhile, in western Oral were sentenced to five days in prison for an unsanctioned protest.
Nazarbayev has remained above the political fray. Some analysts believe that the seemingly grassroots initiative to extend the president’s rule is directed from the very top, begging the question of what motivation Nazarbayev – who already enjoys the ability to run in presidential elections for as long as he lives – has for it.
Aitolkyn Kourmanova, executive director of the Almaty-based Institute for Economic Strategies - Central Asia, points to a tactic of constructing “a new national ideology” around Nazarbayev. “The nation needs to have some strategic targets supported by underlying ideology,” she told EurasiaNet.org. “Therefore, it is simply not enough to grant the president a life-long term. It is also important that the leader who is now [presented as] solely responsible for all Kazakhstan’s positive achievements has national significance (Leader of the Nation) and nationwide recognition.”
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer specializing in Central Asia.