KIEV, Ukraine — Kazakhstan's hardline leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has called snap presidential elections in less than two months, leaving longtime political observers guessing at his motivation.
The president's decision, they say, may be a reaction to events in the Middle East, an attempt to strengthen further his grip on power, or just the opposite — a sign of concern over possible challenges from the country's political elite.
Earlier this month, Nazarbayev set April 3 for the next presidential vote, catching many — including the country's anemic opposition — off guard. On Feb. 11, as was expected, the ruling Nur Otan party nominated him as their candidate.
This is all just a formality: Nazarbayev is all but assured another five-year term. He has dominated this ex-Soviet central Asian state since becoming first secretary of the Kazakh communist party in 1989, and then president of an independent Kazakhstan in 1991. His influence (and more often control) is felt throughout the arteries of government. Nur Otan occupies every seat in parliament, and Nazarbayev, as "Leader of the Nation," is exempt from limits on the number of terms he can serve. And the country has never held an election considered free and fair by Western observers.
At the same time, he is believed to be highly popular among Kazakhstan's approximately 16 million inhabitants and would probably win a legitimate election outright, if one were ever to be held. Nazarbayev is credited with shielding the country from the political and economic upheavals that have shredded other post-Soviet states. Kazakhstan's gargantuan oil reserves have also contributed to gradually rising living standards and to a growing middle class — though a large portion of the wealth remains in the hands of the ruling few.
All of which raises the question: Why does he need to hold elections right now, two years before his term would expire?
In December, a group of Nazarbayev supporters appeared unexpectedly with a novel proposal: to extend the president's term until 2020, thereby doing away with the next two election cycles. The group (almost overnight) collected some 5 million signatures — 55 percent of the electorate — so that the suggestion could be put to vote.
Nazarbayev said that he opposed the referendum, and vetoed the proposal when it was passed by parliament in January. Many experts believed however that the president was in fact behind the project, as virtually no major initiatives can take place in Kazakhstan without his approval.
Western nations roundly condemned the plan. The Kazakh government was stung and quickly backtracked: The country craves legitimacy on the world stage as an up-and-coming democratic and economic power. On Jan. 31 the country's Constitutional Council, which referendum supporters appealed to after the president's veto, deemed the referendum unconstitutional. And it was then that Nazarbayev then floated the idea of the elections as a compromise:
"Instead of a choice that divides us ... , I propose a formula that unites us, which takes into account of our people's will and faithfulness to democratic principles. I am putting forward a proposal to hold an early presidential election, despite the fact that my term in office is reduced by almost two years."
Some analysts saw in these convoluted events a response to the upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt — a pre-emptive conciliatory gesture, to head off any potential demands for democracy. "Kazakh Leader Calls Snap Poll as Egypt Unrest Grows ," read the headline by the Bloomberg news agency.
Others are not so certain. Nazarbayev faces no great menace from the population at large, which either supports his rule or is cowed by the power of the state. In calling these elections then, Nazarbayev may be sending a message to a much smaller circle: top officials, current and former, and including some members of his own family, who may already be jockeying to succeed the 70-year-old leader.
"Nazarbayev is likely less concerned about a mass protest movement like that in Egypt than he is about the political elites inside Kazakhstan who are already contemplating the eventuality of succession in the country," said Sean Roberts, an associate professor of international development at George Washington University and an expert on the central Asian region. "I believe that in terms of challenges to his rule, Nazarbayev thinks less of his own popularity and more of the elites around him who might create challenges."
The problem is that the opaque nature of the Kazakhstan's authoritarian government — where the opinion of only man, Nursultan Nazarbayev, matters in the end — renders any theory an educated guess, at best. Still, the mere fact that Nazarbayev could have just as easily done without these elections, indicates that he is hoping to allay some sort of fear or problem.
"There seems to be more here than meets the eye," Roberts added. "My initial reaction to the referendum first, and then the announcement of early elections later, was that Nazarbayev is worried about something."