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Kazakhs Try to Keep First President

Kazakhstan’s long-serving president Nursultan Nazarbayev on Monday asked a constitution council to examine a proposed referendum on another decade of unchallenged rule, which would allow him to bypass two elections and lead the country unopposed until 2020.

On December 27, the Central Election Commission registered a statement by the initiative group in favor of such a plebiscite, which was endorsed by both houses of parliament. In their letter to Nazarbayev, the legislators asked him “to support the initiative to call a national referendum on the following question: Do you accept the law on Amendments to the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan, envisaging the possibility of extending in a national referendum the powers of the first president of Kazakhstan?”

The initiative group operating throughout the country has already collected 3.6 million signatures in support of the referendum, in contrast to the required minimum of 200,000.

Last Friday, a joint session of the lower and upper houses of parliament voted unanimously to change the constitution to allow the referendum. “The will of our people is law,” said Yerlan Nigmatulin, a Member of Parliament.

Earlier this January, the United States called the idea a “setback for democracy.” On the eve of the vote, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a group that includes democracy promotion among its main goals, expressed grave concerns over the referendum plans.

“To cancel presidential elections once again in favor of a referendum would represent a step backwards from Kazakhstan’s OSCE commitments to establishing democracy, holding periodic free and fair elections, and respecting the rule of law,” Ambassador Ian Kelly told the OSCE permanent council in Vienna.

Kazakhstan has never held an election deemed free and fair by international observers.
On January 6, the U.S. Embassy to Kazakhstan made Washington’s position clear.

“We think that it is important that Kazakhstan’s government and citizens honor their international commitments and continue to strive for free and fair elections,” the Embassy said in a statement.

The United States has fostered close ties with the mineral-rich country, despite the government’s record on human rights, the stifling of opposition and the concentration of power in the hands of the president and his family.

Nursultan Nazarbayev has led Kazakhstan since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. He has already indicated he is confident of winning the next election, due in 2012.

Parliament, snubbing U.S. and EU criticism, has unanimously approved a referendum that would avert any potential challenge of the 70-year-old president in 2012 and 2017 elections.

The constitutional council, itself headed by the president, said in a statement that it would examine whether the proposal complied with Kazakhstan’s constitution and deliver its verdict within a month.

Presidential adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbayev said he was uncertain what Nazarbayev would do now. Yertysbayev conceded that allowing the referendum would likely set Kazakhstan on a collision course with its international commitments to improve democratic standards.

“But parliament was unable to take any other decision since they represent the people, and 5 million people have supported this idea of referendum,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Some analysts have suggested that the idea was made only so that President Nazarbayev could reject it, in order to improve his democratic credentials in the West, BBC News reports. But the success of the petition campaign now appears to have made the referendum inevitable.

A satirical cartoon posted last Friday on YouTube to the accompaniment of a song mocking the referendum proposal ends with an on-screen message reading: “Make the right choice! Be a sheep and vote yes.”

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