ASTANA — The Kazakh parliament Wednesday backed a controversial plan for a referendum to extend the mandate of strongman President Nursultan Nazarbayev to 2020 and skip two presidential elections.
The central election commission unexpectedly announced this week it had received a petition to hold a referendum which if agreed would mean its first and only post-independence president would serve for another decade.
"Taking into account the historic role of the leader of our nation, Nursultan Nazarbayev, we suggest parliament addresses the president with an initiative to hold a referendum," said speaker Ural Mukhamedzhanov on behalf of lawmakers.
He confirmed that the referendum would be on "changes in the constitution to prolong the mandate of the president," according to the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency.
"What is being called an extension of the presidential mandate is in fact the creation of a life-long presidency," leading Kazakh analyst Dosym Satpayev of the Risk Assessment Group told AFP.
He said the move was an extension of parliament's decision this year to grant Nazarbeyev the status of "leader of the nation" (Elbasy in Kazakh).
"After that, he and his circle asked themselves if there was any necessity to take part in presidential elections or, indeed, even if his new status allowed him to take part in a campaign," he said.
The Kazakh lower house of parliament, the Mazhalis, is unstintingly loyal to the president, not surprising given that the last parliamentary elections in 2007 left it only with deputies from the ruling Nur Otan party.
Kazakhstan until now was expected to hold presidential elections in 2012, with another set of polls in 2017. In 2020, Nazarbayev will be 80 and if he is still in power he will have ruled Kazakhstan for three decades.
The initiators of the referendum idea had said this week they hope by January 10 to gather all the signatures required for the referendum to go ahead. Nazarbayev has yet to comment on the idea.
Nazarbayev is hailed by his supporters as the Kazakh equivalent to India's Mahatma Gandhi or Turkey's Kemal Ataturk, a national hero who transformed his ex-Soviet nation into a flourishing regional power.
However critics point to a lack of democracy in a system devoid of any real political competition and a muzzled press where opposition journalists and activists are repeatedly harassed.
The sidelined opposition has already slammed the proposal, saying that Kazakhstan needs elections to develop and it does not want a system of unchanged power.
Born in relative obscurity to a peasant family, Nazarbayev, 70, rose up to become first secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party in 1989 and the president of the independent nation in 1991.
The ex-Soviet state was less than amused by the 2006 comedy hit "Borat" about a fictional Kazakh journalist and has also embarked on a tireless campaign to promote the glitzy new image it wants the world to see.
He has personally masterminded the construction of the new capital Astana which took over from Almaty in 1997 and has been transformed into a booming city of 700,000 whose shiny buildings rise out from nowhere in the vast steppe.
Along with Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who rose to power at the same time, Nazarbayev is the longest-serving leader in the former Soviet Union.
Satpayev said that the referendum project was also a clear indicator that no clear successor has yet emerged to Nazarbayev.
One name mooted had been Nazarbayev's powerful son-in-law and deputy chief executive of the mammoth Samruk-Kazyna state holding company, Timur Kulibayev.
"He has not designated a concrete candidate and this question is still hanging in the air," said Satpayev.
Under the referendum proposal, Kazakhs would be asked if they support prolonging "the mandate of the first president of Kazakhstan, Elbasy, leader of the nation, Nursultan Nazarbayev, until December 6, 2020."