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Kazakhs campaign to keep president till 2020

Associated Press - January 11, 2011

Peter Leonard, Almaty, Kazakhstan Organizers of a petition drive in Kazakhstan calling for the president to remain in power for at least another decade said Tuesday that they have gathered signatures from at least half the Central Asian nation's eligible voters.

Efforts to scrap presidential elections scheduled for 2012 have caused consternation among critics, who describe the move as an attempt to undermine democracy.

Erlan Sydykov, a university rector running the petition campaign, says that President Nursultan Nazarbayev's policies and popularity unquestionably made him the only candidate for the job.

"If there were an election in 2012, he would win anyway because he has so much authority among the people of Kazakhstan," Sydykov told The Associated Press. "That authority should be exploited to full effect."

Sydykov said more than 4 million signatures in support for the referendum have been collected, well in excess of the 200,000 signatures required. The petition will be submitted to election officials this week.

Parliament last month overwhelmingly voted to hold the referendum, but that move was swiftly struck down by Nazarbayev. It is unclear if he will be as quick to scotch the idea now it has apparently been backed by millions of voters, however. Government opponents insist the entire operation has been a carefully choreographed public relations exercise.

"This whole thing has been a show organized by the presidential administration," said activist Sergei Duvanov.

Nazarbayev has ruled the former Soviet republic without any significant challenge since the late 1980s. Supporters say he has ensured stability and economic prosperity, while detractors accuse his regime of corruption and undemocratic practices.

The US Embassy in Kazakhstan last week issued a statement attacking the proposed referendum, saying it would represent a setback for democracy.

"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 statement said.

Sydykov rejects those charges. "A referendum is also an exercise in democracy, like the ones you can see in the countries in the West, such as the United States," he said.

Kazakh authorities have in recent years been steadily installing what has been described by some as a cult of personality. Most notably, parliament voted last year to name Nazarbayev "leader of the nation," a title that effectively made Nazarbayev president for life.

As well as giving him the right to approve important national and foreign policies after he retires, the title grants him lifetime immunity from prosecution for acts committed during his rule.

Observers believe incessant government media coverage of the president's activities may have laid the groundwork for extending Nazarbayev's rule.

"The cult of personality has played a certain role in all of this," Duvanov said. "Through newspapers and television, the idea has been created that there could never be any alternative to Nazarbayev."

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