ASTANA (Reuters) - Kazakhstan's parliament on Friday approved a referendum to extend President Nursultan Nazarbayev's term for a third decade, clearing the way for the veteran leader of Central Asia's largest economy to bypass two elections.
A referendum averts a potential challenge to the 70-year-old Nazarbayev from within a political elite that is nominally loyal to him, but could produce a strong alternative candidate for elections scheduled in 2012 and 2017, analysts say.
Parliament voted unanimously in favor of the plebiscite, criticized by the United States as a "setback for democracy," after more than half of Kazakhstan's electorate signed up to a petition to extend Nazarbayev's rule until 2020. "The people want Nursultan Abishevich to continue building and strengthening our state, and the will of our people is law," said Yerlan Nigmatulin, a deputy in the Mazhilis lower house of parliament, referring to the president by name and patronymic.
Many foreign investors, who have poured more than $150 billion into the resource-rich nation during Nazarbayev's two decades in power, rate the absence of a clear succession plan as the biggest threat to political stability in Kazakhstan.
Nazarbayev, a former steelworker known as "Papa" to many Kazakhs, is the only leader independent Kazakhstan has known. Public criticism of the president is taboo and not a single opposition politician sits in parliament. Kuandyk Turgankulov, head of the Central Election Commission, said the president himself would choose the date of the referendum after signing the bill into law. Parliamentary deputies have said it could take place as early as March.
Nazarbayev can stand for election an unlimited number of times. His current seven-year term expires in 2012, after which the presidential term will be cut to five years.
Popular support for the referendum gained quick momentum after being launched by an 850-strong forum of academics, farmers, war veterans and district council members in the eastern city of Oskemen in late December. Within three weeks, just over 5 million people -- 55 percent of registered voters -- had signed up, the Central Election Commission said. The world's 9th-largest country by area, Kazakhstan has a population of 16.4 million. Opposition groups have criticized 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. Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unregistered opposition party Alga!, said he believed it would have been impossible to collect such a large number of signatures legally in such a short time. His party has tried without success to register for eight years.
Within hours of being asked last week by senators to approve the referendum, Nazarbayev issued a decree rejecting the plan. This decision was overruled by the unanimous vote in parliament, which now expects the president to sign the bill into law.
(Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Louise Ireland)
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