Kazakhstan's president is preparing to back a move to cancel elections in the oil-rich former Soviet Republic until 2020, his chief spokesperson said on Tuesday, confirming that the self-styled citizen's initiative has the full support of the country's leadership.
"If there is a decision on holding a referendum, then I believe that he will be ready for such an eventuality," Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, an adviser to Nursultan Nazarbayev, said in an interview with a pro-government Kazakh newspaper.
Mr Yertysbayev is known as "the president's nightingale", because the views he expresses reflect those of Mr Nazarbayev.
The referendum, which is expected to take place as early as March, would cement Mr Nazarbayev, who has ruled since the dying days of the Soviet Union, in place until he is 80 years old.
Kazakhstan, which has never held an election judged free and fair by international observers, held a referendum in 1996 to postpone elections until 2000, a vote which was easily won by Mr Nazarbayev's supporters. But a ten-year moratorium on elections is unprecedented for the country.
Mr Yertysbayev argued that the pause would enable Mr Nazarbayev to concentrate on planned economic reforms.
Bulat Abilov, chairman of the opposition Azat party, warned that the plan could have a damaging long-term effect. "I am afraid that it could turn as out as it happened in the Soviet times, when many talented people just left the country. It will badly affect the economy in the long run."
Mr Yertysbayev pointed out that if Kazakhstan did hold elections in 2012, as previously planned, Mr Nazarbayev would win more than 90 per cent of the votes. But he conceded that the plan would be controversial, particularly for international organisations, such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which Kazakhstan has chaired this year.
"Of course, a number of democratic institutions, such as the OSCE, will criticise the referendum, but in reality all Western European countries, as well as the USA and Canada, China and Japan, want to have stability in Central Asia," he said.
Kassymzhomart Tokayev, the Chairman of the Kazakh senate, said he was confident that the senate would "unanimously support this initiative and provide the necessary legal framework for its implementation".