Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, used his annual state-of-the-nation address January 28 to drop a strong hint that a referendum on extending his powers will go ahead, Joanna Lillis writes for EurasiaNet.
“I promise if health and strength permit, if there is such unanimity and support from the people, to work as much as is necessary,” Nazarbayev told members of parliament on January 28.
“I am touched by this attention,” he added. “The main thing is that I have understood the signal of the people – not to leave my post.”
Nazarbayev’s remarks came as the Constitutional Council continued examining the legality of the bid to dispense with presidential elections and keep Nazarbayev in office until 2020. The president sent the initiative to the Constitutional Council on January 17, after parliament – which is packed with his supporters – had voted unanimously to override Nazarbayev’s veto of the initiative.
The council has a month to rule on the legality of the initiative, which has been vociferously opposed by opposition parties such as OSDP Azat and Ak Zhol, and which has sparked international criticism.
The bid to keep Nazarbayev in office without elections until 2020 – by which time the 80-year-old president will have been in power for three decades – came up suddenly in late December, when a public initiative group headed by a university professor from the eastern city of Semey (also known as Semipalatinsk), Yerlan Sydykov, proposed it.
The motion snowballed, with supporters emphasizing its grassroots nature, while skeptics see the hand of Nazarbayev and his entourage behind it.
About 5.16 million signatures – enough to comprise 55 percent of the electorate – were gathered in support of the idea in a little under three weeks. Critics said the campaign was characterized by intimidation to sign up, a charge organizers strongly deny.
Nazarbayev has sought to rise above the political fray, and in his state-of-the-nation address he reminded the public of his declared readiness to stand in the next presidential election, due in 2012. He is already personally exempt from term limits, and analysts had forecast that the president, who enjoys genuine popularity in Kazakhstan for bringing the country political stability and relative economic prosperity, would win in a landslide.
In his address, Nazarbayev said the final decision on the referendum would be taken after the Constitutional Council issues its opinion. Few in Kazakhstan now doubt that the plebiscite will go ahead – despite international worries about the democratization process in Kazakhstan.
As Kazakhstan’s foreign minister, Kanat Saudabayev, met US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington on January 26, she reiterated concerns about the referendum bid. Similar concerns have been voiced by EU officials.
“During the meeting, Secretary Clinton emphasized the US concern that the national referendum that would extend President Nazarbayev’s term of office to 2020 would be a setback for democracy, and we hope that Kazakhstan will renew its commitments to democracy, good governance, and human rights,” Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley told a press briefing after the talks.
That remark reinforced previous US statements of concern about the possibility of Nazarbayev’s rule being extended which have been glossed over by his supporters, who argue that his outstanding contribution to Kazakhstan’s development means that he merits special treatment. Presidential adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbayev has also said he believes Western leaders tacitly support Nazarbayev remaining in office as the key to Kazakhstan’s stability.
Nazarbayev used his state-of-the-nation address to reinforce the message that his tenure in power has brought Kazakhstan political stability and economic growth. He said per capita GDP stood at over $9,000 and promised to up it by a third by 2020. He also pledged to tackle poverty and unemployment.
On January 26 Kazinform cited a poll conducted by Kazakhstan’s InfoSystem research center showing 91 percent of people backing the plebiscite, while just 3 percent were against. Pundits are predicting that the Constitutional Council will shortly rule in favor of holding the referendum, which may go ahead in March.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer specializing in Central Asia. This article was originally published by EurasiaNet. To view the original, please click here.