Kazakhstan will hold a snap presidential election on June 9, the interim head of state Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has announced, moving the vote up by almost a year following Nursultan Nazarbaev's resignation last month after 30 years in power.
In a televised address to the nation on April 9, Toqaev said he would "guarantee a free and fair election," though no vote held in the Central Asian country since the Soviet collapse of 1991 has been deemed democratic by international observers.
Toqaev said that he made the decision to hold an early election after discussing the issue with Nazarbaev -- referring to the ex-president as Elbasy, or Leader of the Nation, a title bestowed upon him by the loyal parliament in 2010.
The early election appears aimed at shortening the political transition period and decreasing the chances of instability following the abrupt resignation of Nazarbaev, 78, who had been president since 1990 and remains chairman of the ruling Nur Otan party and the influential Security Council.
No date for the vote had been set but it had been expected to be held in April 2020, five years after the previous presidential election.
"In order to secure social and political accord, confidently move forward, and deal with the tasks of socioeconomic development, it is necessary to eliminate any uncertainty," Toqaev said in his address.
Toqaev did not say whether he would run in the election, but he would not have been expected to do so in the speech because presidential candidates can only be nominated by nationwide organizations such as political parties.
It was not immediately clear whether Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, Darigha Nazarbaeva, who heads the upper parliament house and has been seen as a possible successor, would run in the election.
An aide, Saule Mustafaeva, said that she was was not planning to run, but Nazarbaeva herself did not confirm that in a brief comment, saying only that anyone can run and that it is up to political parties to nominate candidates.
Both Toqaev and Nazarbaeva are members of Nur Otan.
The announcement of a vote in two months leaves potential opponents of a ruling-party candidate with little time to mount campaigns, reducing their chances in a country where opposition has been marginalized and politics is still dominated by Nazarbaev, whose favorite -- whether anointed as such publicly or not -- will be virtually certain to win the presidency.
If Toqaev runs, he could benefit from public sector wage increases due in June, as well as other welfare initiatives.
The announcement of an early election follows unusually persistent protests in which demonstrators in several cities have accused the government of ignoring the needs and demands of ordinary people.
The protests were spurred in part by anger and grief over the deaths of five children from a single family in a house fire in Astana, the capital, on February 4.
The predawn fire destroyed a small family home in Astana while both parents were away working overnight shifts, killing five girls aged 3 months to 13 years.
Opponents, critics, and rights groups say Nazarbaev, an authoritarian leader who has tolerated little dissent, prolonged his power in the energy-rich country of 18.7 million by manipulating the democratic process.
Hugh Williamson, the Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, tweeted on April 9 that a free and fair poll would be "a big step forward."
Since independence in 1991, only one presidential election -- in 2005 -- has been held on the first Sunday in December as stipulated in the Kazakh Constitution.
The other four were snap polls in which Nazarbaev was declared the winner with a huge majority of the votes -- nearly 98 percent in the most recent ballot, in April 2015.
A referendum in 1995 also prolonged Nazarbaev's time in office.
Toqaev had been chairman of the upper house, the Senate, and became interim president in accordance with the constitution after Nazarbaev resigned.
The 65-year-old is a career diplomat who has served as foreign minister and prime minister in the past and is fluent in Kazakh, Russian, English, and Mandarin Chinese.
Hours after Toqaev was sworn in on March 20, the Senate elected Darigha Nazarbaeva as its chairwoman on his recommendation, making her the second powerful person in the country. A day before announcing the snap presidential election, Toqaev met with Nazarbaeva and the cabinet ministers.
Nazarbaev was the senior leader in Kazakhstan since June 1989, when he became Communist Party boss in what was then the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic.
Rights activists and critics say he persistently suppressed dissent, prolonged his time in office through undemocratic votes or referendums, and used the levers of power to neutralize potential opponents.