Kazakh lawmakers back prolonging leader's rule

14th January 2011, Comments 0 comments

Kazakhstan's parliament Friday voted to hold a referendum on prolonging President Nursultan Nazarbayev's rule to 2020, defying international criticism of a move that would scrap two presidential polls.

Deputies in the upper and lower houses unanimously backed constitutional changes to allow the public to decide in a referendum whether to prolong the strongman leader's rule until 2020 without holding elections.

The result of the referendum is virtually a foregone conclusion because an astonishing five million Kazakhs -- more than half of the electorate -- have signed a petition backing the reform.

A "yes" vote would allow Nazarbayev, 70, to skip planned presidential elections in 2012 and 2017, a prospect that has already caused international concern.

The European Union said in a statement on Thursday that a decision to extend Nazarbayev's term would be "in contradiction with Kazakhstan's commitment to democracy and good governance."

Germany echoed the statement Friday, with Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert noting, "Kazakhstan has just completed its presidency of the OSCE with a summit in the Kazakh capital Astana that confirmed the principles of democracy and good governance.

"Such an extension of the president's time in office by 10 years contradicts exactly these principles of democracy and good governance."

Earlier this month, the US embassy in Astana condemned the idea of holding the referendum, saying it "would be a setback for democracy in Kazakhstan".

Deputies in Kazakhstan's rubber-stamp parliament, whose lower house is entirely made up of Nazarbayev supporters, argued that popular support shown in the petition forced them to support the controversial changes.

"The parliament could not ignore the opinion of almost 60 percent of the electorate," senator Gani Kasymov told journalists, saying the referendum could be called in March.

"Over the whole world, the words Nazarbayev and Kazakhstan have long ago become synonyms," deputy Yerlan Nigmatulin told the parliament in a tribute to the president.

The author of the petition, Yerlan Sydykov, a provincial university rector, told AFP that the vote showed Kazakhstan's commitment to democracy.

"A referendum in Kazakhstan is an expression of popular will, the will of the people of Kazakhstan. And this, I repeat, is a norm of democracy," he said after the vote.

Supporters say it will guarantee the stability of Central Asia's richest state for the next decade but the opposition and the West have raised concerns that it will create an authoritarian and unaccountable regime.

Amirzhan Kossanov, secretary general of the opposition Azat party, told AFP that the vote showed that "unfortunately there is no pluralism in Kazakhstan's political life."

"Events such as these are only possible in a country where concepts such as elections, referendums and other political initiatives are controlled by the authorities," he added.

Rights activist Ninel Fokina, head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, said the vote breached the constitution.

"All the constitutional norms are being openly, completely trampled upon," Fokina told AFP. "People could lose a basic right to vote and be elected but ... at the same time, this is said to be in the public interest."

Nazarbayev vetoed the proposal this month in what appears to have been a token gesture. In a quirk of the Kazakh constitution, the parliament has the right to overturn his veto.

The president has ruled energy-rich Kazakhstan since it became independent from the Soviet Union. If still in power by 2020 he will have ruled for three decades.

Supporters praise him for turning Kazakhstan into an economic and political power but critics complain it has become an authoritarian state with servile official media and harassment of opposition activists.

The authorities were less than amused by the 2006 comedy hit "Borat" about a fictional Kazakh journalist and have campaigned tirelessly to promote a glitzy new image.

Along with Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who rose to power at the same time, Nazarbayev is the longest-serving leader in the former Soviet Union.

© 2011 AFP

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