ASTANA (Reuters) - More than half of Kazakhstan's 9 million voters have backed a referendum to extend veteran leader Nursultan Nazarbayev's rule of the oil-rich Central Asian state for a third decade, organisers of the plan said on Wednesday.
The national referendum, which the United States has called a "setback for democracy", would clear the way for Nazarbayev to lead Central Asia's largest economy unopposed until 2020, bypassing a presidential election scheduled for next year.
Organisers said the "people's initiative" for the plebiscite had delivered more than 5 million signatures to the Central Election Commission, a powerful show of support for a movement that has grown rapidly from a citizens' forum in late December.
"We are sure that we have collected the signatures of more than half of the electorate in Kazakhstan," Yerlan Sydykov, the leader of the referendum initiative, told a news conference.
Some analysts see the referendum as an attempt to avert a challenge to the 70-year-old Nazarbayev from members of the political elite, who are nominally loyal to him but could produce a strong alternative candidate for an election in 2012.
Known as "Papa" to many Kazakhs, the former steelworker is the only leader independent Kazakhstan has known. Many investors say the absence of a succession plan is the biggest threat to political stability in the world's 9th-largest country by area.
Nazarbayev, once a member of the Soviet Communist Party politburo, has overseen in excess of $150 billion in foreign investment during more than two decades as leader of Kazakhstan, the world's largest uranium miner and a major oil exporter.
Galina Markova, a 60-year-old pensioner in Almaty, said she supported the referendum. "I want our republic to flourish. I want business here to grow so we are not importing everything with petrodollars," she said.
Nazarbayev said in September he would seek a new term in 2012 and said he expected no serious challenge.
He rejected the referendum plan on January 6, after senators voted unanimously to request his support for the initiative. But parliament, which next meets on January 14, could still force it through should four-fifths of members defy Nazarbayev's decree.
"I have no doubt that this issue will have a positive outcome," said senator Anatoly Bashmakov. He said the referendum, which could take place as early as March, was "the will of the people".
Opposition groups have criticised the initiative, saying Kazakhstan has deserted principles it agreed to when chairing Europe's main security and rights watchdog, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, last year.
"It's a funeral for democracy," said Inga Imanbayeva, one of six activists detained after protesting in Almaty outside the offices of Nur Otan, the only party to hold seats in parliament.
"Extending the term of one person for 10 years without alternative is an anti-democratic step," she said. "Even the president himself is against this."
The U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan, in a statement issued on January 7, welcomed Nazarbayev's rejection of the referendum while also urging others to avoid any steps that would "violate the constitution of Kazakhstan" and damage the president's legacy.
Kazakhstan has never held an election judged free or fair by international observers. Nazarbayev, as the country's first president, can stand for election an unlimited number of times.
(Additional reporting and writing by Robin Paxton in Almaty; Editing by Jon Boyle)
Source: Reuters US Online Report World News