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Turkmenbashi's Advice For 'Elbashy'

Even Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenbashi, himself knew better than to rule beyond 70 years of age.
Even Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenbashi, himself knew better than to rule beyond 70 years of age.
The book "Rukhname," which served as a spiritual guide for the people of Turkmenistan, contains a passage that says "no country should have a leader older than 70 years."

The purported author of that book was none other than the country's long-serving former president, Saparmurat Niyazov.

When the eccentric Niyazov was alive, his country's rubber-stamp parliament bestowed on him the title "Turkmenbashi" -- literally the "head of the Turkmen."

Turkmenistan's parliament also approved a measure that made Turkmenbashi the country's leader for life. But publicly, and some would say disingenuously, Turkmenbashi repeatedly said he would leave office when he was 70 years old.

It was later written into the country's constitution that a president must be at least 40 years of age but could be no older than 70. Niyazov himself did not live that long. He died in 2006 at the age of 66.

On January 28, Kazakhstan's currently 70-year-old president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, upon whom his country's parliament bestowed the title of "leader of the nation" in June 2010, turned back Turkmenbashi's precedent, or at least chose to ignore it.

Turkmenbashi Departed At 66

Nazarbaev has been the focus of a campaign to hold a referendum on keeping Kazakhstan's first, and only, president in office until 2020, bypassing elections scheduled for 2012 and 2017.

Kazakhstan's opposition says that since the campaign started in December 2010 the entire matter was planned in advance. This opinion was only made firmer in people’s minds when Nazarbaev -- who holds the title of “Elbashy,” or leader of the nation -- publicly rejected the idea.

But at the end of January, after more than 5 million people (more than half the country's eligible voters) reportedly signed the petition for holding a referendum to extend Nazarbaev's term in office, Elbashy relented. Read here how Nazarbaev has had the signatures destroyed, so we’ll never know how many people really signed.

“I have received a signal from the people: don't leave office, continue working," Elbashy said in his annual state-of-the-nation address.

Elbashy Will Be 80

The subject of Nazarbaev's age (80 years) when he would leave office in 2020 comes up in reports on the possible referendum. Nazarbaev has even called on his country's scientists to seek a "youth formula" that could extend his life, but here he joins a long line of historical leaders who have sought to extend their lives (and their time as ruler).

There has been and will be continued speculation on the reasons Nazarbaev has decided to stay on. My best guess is that there is no clear line of succession. His former first son-in-law -- Rakhat Aliev -- is disgraced in Kazakhstan and faces 40 years in jail if he ever returns. His second son-in-law -- Temir Kulibaev -- is the subject of an investigation into money laundering in Switzerland.

His grandson, Aysultan (Rakhat Aliev and eldest daughter Darigha Nazarbaeva's son), is just 20. The graduate of Britain's Royal Military Academy Sandhurst would still only be 30 when Nazarbaev's term runs out.

According to the constitution, a person must be at least 40 to become president, but one can become a deputy of the Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament, at just 25 and a deputy in the Senate at 30.

A trusted adviser could bridge the gap in time and an amendment to the constitution could lower the required age, to say 35, for a person to become eligible to serve as president.

-- Bruce Pannier