Kazakhstan's long-serving President Nursultan Nazarbaev has rejected the idea of extending his term in office until 2020 in a nationwide referendum.
Nazarbaev has decided "to reject a motion by the parliament of Kazakhstan" to change the country's constitution, Kazakh media reported, citing a presidential decree.
Nazarbaev's critics, however, dismissed the move as a show of democracy aimed at boosting the president's image.
The idea of holding a referendum to extend Nazarbaev's presidency was initially raised last month by a self-styled "initiative group" of Nazarbaev supporters headed by academic Erlan Sydykov.
Soon, backers were collecting signatures, with Sydykov claiming on January 6 they had gathered nearly 2.6 million -- far more than the 200,000 needed for the referendum to be held.
Sydykov said today the group would continue with its plan "as the president's decree concerns parliament," not the initiative group.
"We want to gather as many signatures as possible to make our request, our initiative to hold a referendum more convincing," Sydykov said.
Will Of The People?
The proposed referendum was criticized as a setback for democracy by the United States.
Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan Richard Hoagland said this week that "for people to have a democratic voice in their country, they should have a bigger choice than simply 'yes' or 'no' as in a referendum."
"There should be a choice of different ideas and different personalities," Hoagland added.
But the plan was backed by both chambers of the Kazakh parliament, most recently when senators threw their weight behind it on January 6.
Senator Berik Imashev, a Nazarbaev supporter, said in the chamber that day the idea of referendum had nationwide backing.
"From the very beginning this constitutional initiative has been backed by hundreds of thousands of citizens. The process of preparation for the referendum has been covered by the media in detail," Imashev said.
"Many well-known and respected people in our country -- taking into consideration their life experience and professional experience -- talked about the significance of such an event for the further development of our country."
Leader Of The Nation
Nazarbaev, who already has the title of "elbashy," or leader of the nation, has ruled the oil-rich former Soviet country since 1989.
The Kazakh Constitution has already been amended to allow Nazarbaev to run for reelection as many times as he wishes. The next presidential election is scheduled for 2012.
In September last year, Nazarbaev indicated he was going to run for another term in office, and analysts predict he could win the vote easily.
Aside from the U.S. criticism, some Kazakh citizens have expressed their discontent with the proposed referendum online.
Bakhitzhan Toregozhina, the head of one such web-based movement, says the Internet is the only remaining island of free expression in Kazakhstan.
Toregozhina says some 400 people joined the online appeal to Nazarbaev and Kazakh lawmakers, asking them to reject the idea of a referendum and support free and fair elections.
If At First You Don't Succeed...
But despite Nazarbaev's formal rejection of the idea, some Kazakh analysts do not rule out that parliament would go ahead with a plan to extend Nazarbaev's term.
In May, Nazarbaev officially rejected a lawmakers' initiative granting him the status of "leader of the nation." However, he did not veto the bill, which eventually came into force.
Dosym Satpaev, an Almaty-based political scientist, says the same scenario could happen with the prolongation of Nazarbaev's term in office.
"I think [lawmakers] will insist," Satpaev says, "they will possibly make their proposal to the president once again regarding the referendum and constitutional amendments."
Opposition politician Serikbolsyn Abdildin says Nazarbaev will be hailed for turning down the referendum "as someone great and wise who doesn't want to undermine election rules."
But Abdildin says Nazarbaev's term in office will be extended one way or another.
"Any decision regarding Nazarbaev is made with his consent, therefore if there was some initiative group, such instruction was given by Nazarbaev -- if not by him directly, then by his team," Abdildin says, before sketching out one possible scenario.
"In the end he will come to the conclusion that he cannot ignore the people's will, saying, 'several million signatures were gathered for me,'" Abdildin adds.
"Maybe by January 11 more than 90 percent of voters will have signed [the referendum request]. And then there would be no need for a referendum anymore, and according to the will of people he will stay on in office until 2020."
Lawmaker Irak Elekseev said recently that according to the country's laws, parliament has the right to amend the constitution to extend Nazarbaev's term until 2020 despite the president's refusal.
written by Farangis Najibullah, based on RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reports. Tajik Service correspondent Mirzo Salimov also contributed to this report