Kazak “Life Presidency” Plan Leaves Everyone Guessing

Proposal to abandon elections for presidency comes just before Kazakstan takes up OSCE chair.

Kazak “Life Presidency” Plan Leaves Everyone Guessing

Proposal to abandon elections for presidency comes just before Kazakstan takes up OSCE chair.

As supporters of President Nursultan Nazarbaev float the idea of making him head of state for life, analysts are trying to work out whether he will really take up the offer and risk wrecking Kazakstan’s attempts to show a democratic face to the world.

The timing is double perplexing – Nazarbaev does not face re-election until 2012 and is unlikely to face a serious challenge. Secondly, the proposal comes at a particularly sensitive time when Kazakstan is only months away from taking over the rotating chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, whose members made continuing progress towards democracy a condition for approving the country’s application.

Nazarbaev’s office has denied discussing the proposal, let along pushing it. Some analysts believe it could even work to the president’s advantage, since he could gently turn it down as a demonstration of his democratic credentials.

The campaign began on September 10, when the president’s press office reported that Zakratdin Baidosov, a professor in the northwestern city of Aktobe, met the president who was visiting the area and asked him to stay on for life.

“You ought to rule Kazakstan and lead the country forever,” Baidosov was quoted as saying.

It soon became apparent that this was more than a one-off statement from an over-zealous follower in the provinces. On September 14, Darkhan Kaletaev, deputy head of the president’s political party Nur Otan, proposed passing a law opening the way for Nazarbaev to become president for life.

In an interview with the KazTAG news agency Kaletaev argued that the scope of Nazarbaev’s public role as “recognised leader of the country” went far beyond his status as constitutional president.

In a September 23 statement, a top official from the president’s administration distanced it from the proposal, saying it had not sponsored the move.

“This is an initiative by certain individuals, the intelligentsia and political parties,” said Maulen Ashimbaev deputy head of the presidential office. “It has nothing to do with the authorities. It hasn’t been discussed in the Ak Orda [presidential residence], and it isn’t on the agenda.”

Ashimbaev said proposals of this kind should instead be viewed as more general expressions of support.

Analysts interviewed by IWPR say there is no pressing need for Nazarbaev to secure lifetime rulership. The Kazak constitution was changed in 2007 to allow him, as the first ever president of independent Kazakstan, to run for office as many times as he likes. In addition, a law dating from 2000 would leave him with considerable influence and cast-iron guarantees of immunity if he stepped down.

One argument is that Nazarbaev is so concerned about future stability that he would jeopardise Kazakstan’s reputation abroad if he had to.

Bulat Abilov, who heads the opposition party Azat, argues that Nazarbaev’s team sense that victory in 2012 election is not a certainty if the current economic crisis, stemming from global financial meltdown, continues and results in a disgruntled electorate.

“The spin doctors in Ak Orda understand that in two or three year’s time, the situation still won’t have improved.”

Andrei Chebotarev, an expert on Kazak politics, wrote an article for the Moscow-based Information and Analysis Centre arguing that the Nazarbaev administration remains wary of the opposition.

Apart from domestic opposition parties, there are political forces in exile led by disgraced former officials with substantial financial backing. They include the president’s former son in law Rakhat Aliev, currently in Austria, and Mukhtar Ablyazov, a former cabinet minister and banker.

At home, pressure groups set up by investors who have lost money in the construction industry crash of the last year have set up a movement called Kazakstan 2012.

Chebotarev concluded, however, that the authorities would have time to address problems arising from the economic crisis by the time the election comes round.

Another theory is that the life presidency scheme is the work of elite groups who regard Nazarbaev’s continuing presence as a guarantee of their own future.

Although Eduard Poletaev, a leading analyst in Almaty, believes that a new law might give Nazarbaev some vaguer status as “leader of the nation” rather than life president, he says that would be enough to satisfy the elite.

“The status of leader of the nation will allow him to control the situation even if he’s tired and wants to retire in 2012,” said Poletaev. “And that will allow the people now in power to preserve the wealth and influence they’ve accumulated under this administration.”

The big question is whether the Kazak leadership is prepared to abandon the principle of an elected presidency just as it is about to enhance its international reputation with the 2010 OSCE chairmanship.

“I think it would be a very stupid move to pass such a law now, on the eve of chairing the OSCE. It would provoke a new wave of criticism both within the country and from the international community,” said political analyst Viktor Kovtunovsky.

Poletaev, however, says the damage might be fairly limited.

“I don’t think it would have a major impact on the OSCE chairmanship,” he said, adding that the European security and political grouping “does not play a major role in global politics”.

The drive towards a life presidency may yet come to nothing, of Nazarbaev makes it known he does not want it. One analyst, who asked not to be named, even suggested the whole thing was an elaborate to allow the president to refuse the offer.

Kovtunovsky, meanwhile, pointed out that the Kazak leader makes a habit of taking everyone by surprise.

“Three weeks ago, Nazarbaev agreed that schools and universities could named after him, but he turned down an initiative that the capital Astana should be renamed Nursultan,” said the analyst. “He supported a proposal that he could be re-elected as many times as he wants. Some things he accepts, others he doesn’t.”

Roman Bamberg and Galiaskar Utegulov are pseudonyms used by journalists in Kazakstan.

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