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Kazakh parliament passes early polls bill

Agence France Presse - February 2, 2011

Astana Kazakhstan's parliament on Wednesday approved amendments to the constitution allowing President Nursultan Nazarbayev to hold snap presidential elections instead of a referendum on prolonging his rule until 2020.

The bill amending the constitution was unanimously approved by the parliament's two houses and now has to be signed into law by the president.

"The law puts in place the constitutional framework for conducting early presidential polls," Talgat Danakov, deputy chief of presidential administration, said at the joint session of parliament.

Nazarbayev, whose current term is due to expire in 2012, on Monday unexpectedly rejected a plan to hold a referendum on prolonging his rule until 2020, saying that he would instead call early presidential polls.

The presidential announcement to reject the referendum plan, which had envisaged scrapping elections in 2012 and 2017, came after rare criticism of the ex-Soviet state by its Western ally the United States.

The parliament last month said the controversial referendum should go ahead but the constitutional court rejected the plan later.

US State Department called the decision to jettison the referendum plan "the right decision" but critics say that Nazarbayev's announcement to call snap elections instead is merely designed to pacify the West.

Few doubt that Nazarbayev will secure an overwhelming victory in the polls and analysts say the opposition, which was caught off guard by the announcement, would simply not have enough time to prepare for the polls.

The date of the new elections has yet to be announced but the polls may be scheduled for as early as spring.

In his address to the nation late last month, Nazarbayev said he was ready to work for as long as required, with or without a referendum. "I understood the signal of the people do not leave your post, continue work," he said at the time.

The 70-year-old leader has ruled Kazakhstan, Central Asia's largest oil producer and one of the world's leading uranium producers, since it became independent from the Soviets. 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.

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