Prague, 8 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Deputies from both houses of the Kazakh parliament today approved holding presidential elections in January 1999 instead of December 2000.
Yesterday the same deputies adopted 19 amendments to the country's constitution, 13 of which had been proposed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev one week earlier. The six others prolonged the presidential term in office and removed restrictions both on the president's age and his eligibility to run for office more than twice.
More than a month ago, there was considerable speculation that these moves were in the making. But the speed with which the deputies approved the measures this week almost certainly took potential opposition-party candidates by surprise.
Yesterday, too, a joint session of the Kazakh parliament adopted amendments that increased their members' terms in office by one year. Now, members of the Senate (upper house) will serve six years instead of five and those in the Majlis (lower house) will serve five years instead of four.
Other amendments passed by the joint session provide the parliamentarians with insurance in the event they are sacked -- although they were not granted immunity from prosecution. Should a parliamentarian lose his position, for whatever reason, the government is now obligated to find him other employment.
The president's term in office was extended from five to seven years. Another amendment removed any maximum-age limit for presidential candidates -- previously no one over 65 could run for the office. Also, there is no longer any limit on the number of presidential terms.
Beginning in August, there was speculation that the presidential election would be moved forward. At the time, economists in Russia and Kazakhstan forecasted a worsening economy that they expected to bottom out in late 1999.
Nazarbayev has said that for the moment, the Russian crisis has had little effect on his country. But a majority of economists, both Kazakh and foreign, believe that a decrease in industrial output and lower prices for Kazakhstan's major exports -- oil and metals -- will inevitably lead to economic decline. According to some analysts, Nazarbayev may believe that it is better to hold elections before the predicted economic crisis affects the population and perhaps his popularity as well.
For Kazakh opposition parties and movements, the rescheduling of the elections presents big problems. The detailed election procedures are still being worked out. But the likely scenario is that only one month will be allowed for the gathering of the required amount of signatures to register a candidate.
Once registered, moreover, candidates will have only about two months to get their message out to the population of a country which is six times larger than France. In recent Central Asian elections, media coverage of elections has been quite limited. It is not likely to be any less limited in Kazakhstan, where print and broadcast media are either entirely under state control or partially subsidized by the government.
This week's parliamentary actions are the latest in a series of constitutional maneuvers by Nazarbayev that go back three years. A new Kazakh Constitution was adopted by referendum in 1995. The same year, through another referendum, Nazarbayev managed to prolong his presidency until 2000. Now, three years later, the Kazakh Constitution has been changed again.