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Kazakhstan: Opposition Battles For Opportunity To Challenge President

President Nazarbaev (file photo) Assurances this week by a senior presidential aide in Kazakhstan that the country's next presidential election is still nearly two years away have highlighted a lack of unanimity on a delicate constitutional debate. The dispute pits those who believe President Nursultan Nazarbaev should be made to honor the seven-year term set out by the constitution against those who believe the scheduled date in late 2006 suits the country just fine. Either way, frustrated opposition leaders are preparing to offer their alternative to seven more years of Nazarbaev rule as soon as possible.

Prague, 4 March 2005 -- An aide to President Nursultan Nazarbaev told the Kazakh newspaper "Ekspress K" early this week that the next presidential election will come as scheduled, in December 2006. The aide, Yermukhamet Yertysbaev, added that the opposition is "preparing with this date in mind."

But instead of settling the matter, the comments appear to have emboldened the opposition -- and even pointed to a possible rift within the ruling Otan party.

That party was formed immediately after Nazarbaev's election victory six years ago -- in January 1999 -- with the express aim of securing Nazarbaev's reelection.

But earlier this week, the acting chairman of Otan, Amangeldy Ermegiyaev, hinted that the presidential vote could come as early as this year.

"The law doesn't clearly state when elections should be held. The constitution says [it should be] in December, but it also specifies a seven-year [presidential] term. This issue should be resolved by the president through the constitutional council and that is why, in our [Otan's] opinion, it is proper to hold elections this year. Everything points to this being the best solution," Ermegiyaev said.

For his part, Nazarbaev has already announced his intention to run for another term.

At least one opposition group appears to think there might be a chance for early elections, adding that it will soon be offering up a candidate to challenge the incumbent.

Altynbek Sarsenbaev is a leader of the Ak Zhol (Bright Path) Party. Among Kazakhstan's opposition parties, only Ak Zhol managed to win a seat in September's parliamentary elections. No one is occupying that seat, however, to protest what Ak Zhol calls a rigged vote.

Sarsenbaev said the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces, a coalition of opposition groups formed in the wake of their overwhelming defeat in those elections, will soon name its presidential candidate. "There is no doubt the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces will produce a single candidate, and in one month we will announce this candidate to the people," he said.

The timing suggests the opposition believes an early election is a genuine possibility.

Some of Kazakhstan's most prominent opposition leaders have been jailed on criminal charges. One remains behind bars, while another has been in self-imposed exile for years, having been convicted in absentia and given a lengthy prison sentence.

Sarsenbaev is himself a possible candidate, but the name on most lips these days is that of Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, a former speaker of the lower house of parliament. A longtime friend of Nazarbaev, Tuyakbai stunned many when he criticized last fall's parliamentary elections as a "farce" soon after the polls closed. A weakened opposition instantly welcomed Tuyakbai as one of its own.

Tuyakbai appeared to temper Sarsenbaev's assurances about the early choice of an opposition candidate. But he also appeared to suggest that he has been approached about the possibility of mounting his own challenge for the presidency. "I didn't come to any final conclusion," he said. "We haven't discussed the issue at the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces."

Kazakh precedent might suggest an early vote. The last presidential election was held well in advance of its scheduled date of December 2000. The vote was announced in October 1998 and the balloting conducted in January 1999.

Serikbolsyn Abdildin of the Communist Party told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that the Kazakh Constitution stipulates that elections be called in August and held in December.

Kenzhageldy Sagadiev, a member of the Otan faction of parliament, said recently that he simply can't say when the election will be held -- only that his party is ready to fulfill its role in helping reelect Nazarbaev whenever that time comes.

(Edige Magauin of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report)