THE workings of Kazakhstan's political machine are regrettably now rather familiar. An obscure group of concerned citizens gathers in a distant corner of the country and there, for the good of the nation, makes a ground-breaking proposal. Ever receptive to the people's will, the authorities in the capital rush to make this new idea their own and forward it to the president. The wise and caring leader must then decide whether to stick to the letter of the constitution or bend it to do the good people's bidding.
Kazakhstan's peculiar style of democracy was on display in the last week of a year in which its chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was supposed to show the world that the oil-rich country could live up to international standards of democracy and human rights. In the end it reverted with lightning speed to its old form. On December 23rd a forum of 900 people in the eastern city of Ust-Kamenogorsk put forward an initiative to extend, via a referendum, the president's term in office until 2020 and to cancel the next presidential election, due in 2012. Four days later the Central Election Commission registered the appeal. On December 29th it was backed by Kazakhstan's one-party parliament and is now before President Nursultan Nazarbayev himself. In power since 1989, the 70-year-old vies with his Uzbek counterpart, Islam Karimov, as longest-serving leader in states that once made up the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, by December 31st, 300,000 signatures had already been gathered, 100,000 more than are required to call for a referendum. In lively discussions on the internet, unidentified officials, teachers, and students complained of pressure to sign the petition.
Whether Mr Nazarbayev will go ahead and treat himself to a full three decades in power remains to be seen. Last June he was named "leader of the nation", with far-reaching rights beyond his term in office. He had originally publicly rejected such a proposal. Parliament passed the bill, which became law even without his signature. It might be the same this time around.
Kazakhstan's opposition, such as it is, denounced the initiative. Gazis Aldamzharov, head of the Communist Party, questioned whether, among 16.4m Kazakhstanis, it was really impossible to find a worthy alternative to Mr Nazarbayev. But like him or not, Mr Nazarbayev is seen by many, including foreign investors, as providing stability. This is highly cherished in Central Asia's volatile neighbourhood, where last year's bloody overthrow of Kyrgyzstan's president, soon followed by ethnic violence and the introduction of a parliamentary republic, were seen as disasters. Although Mr Nazarbayev runs the country with an iron hand, he is not an outright dictator. Less of a control freak than Mr Karimov, he is a pragmatist who is credited with creating prosperity.
Yet the president has conspicuously failed to groom a successor. So observers believe that his departure, whenever it comes, will usher in a period of instability which might, at worst, rival the turmoil in Kyrgyzstan. Although the formal rules of succession are clear, fierce political fights are likely, and attempts by powerful interest groups to redistribute the country's economic spoils. Mr Nazarbayev's loyal supporters fear losing not only their influence but also everything they have built for themselves since independence. Much better, then, for everyone, including the president and his family, if Mr Nazarbayev stays on for as long as possible. Wicked tongues say that the remarkable organisational skills displayed by those involved in the signature initiative have the fingerprints of the presidential administration all over them.