Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has rejected a proposed referendum that would have extended his term in office unopposed until 2020 and called for early presidential elections.
He made the announcement in a televised address just hours after the Constitutional Council said it had opposed a decision by parliament to amend the constitution to pave the way for the president's extended stay in office.
Igor Rogov, the head of the council, said the bill adopted by parliament earlier this month was unconstitutional. But he said a final decision over whether to hold the referendum rested with the head of the state.
The 70-year-old strongman presented his decision to hold early elections as a compromise between what he called a "devisive" choice between a referendum and an election.
"Instead of a divisive choice between a referendum and an election, I want to offer a uniting formula that takes into consideration the will of our people to be committed to democratic principles,” he said. “I propose to hold an early presidential election, even though it would make my current term in office almost two years shorter."
No Date Set
Nazarbaev did not name a date for the vote; the next presidential election was originally scheduled for 2012.
The former communist party boss has ruled Kazakhstan since 1989, and the last presidential vote was held in 2005.
Nazarbaev -- as the first president of the country -- enjoys an exclusive right to run for the presidency an unlimited number of times. Other Kazakhs are bound to just two five-year terms in office.
The idea of the referendum was initially proposed by a little-known university professor who had campaigned to gather signatures to support amendments to the constitution.
Within weeks, the initiative's backers said they had delivered over 5 million signatures – more than half the country's 9 million eligible voters – in support of a referendum.
Would Guarantee Stability
Backers argued that an extended term in office for Nazarbaev would guarantee stability both for the nation and for investors, who have poured over $150 billion into Kazakhstan's energy sector in recent years.
Last week, Nazarbaev said he was "touched" by the people's trust and that he was ready to stay on as president for as long as required, provided that his health and the people would allow.
He made it clear, however, that it was up to the Constitutional Council to decide whether the amendments were in line with the constitution.
In his speech on January 31, Nazarbaev said he had not signed the bill adopted by parliament but instead had sent it to the council for review.
The bill has been strongly criticized by the West. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told her Kazakh counterpart, Kanat Saudabaev, last week that Washington hoped "Kazakhstan [would] renew its commitments to democracy, good governance, and human rights."
Washington on January 31 welcomed the decision not to hold the referendum. U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley described the Kazakh move as the "right decision."
Inside Kazakhstan, hundreds of people joined an online forum calling on Nazarbaev to hold free and fair elections.
Since the country’s independence in 1991, not a single presidential or parliamentary election in Kazakhstan has been deemed fully free, fair, and democratic by international observers.
Just More Games
Kazakhstan's opposition politicians swiftly criticized Nazarbaev's announcement as just another political game.
Vladimir Kozlov, the head of the unregistered Alga party, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that Nazarbaev may not be sure he would win the next election if it took place in 2012 as planned. Kozlov said last year that he would run for president in that election.
"The planned referendum and an early election amount to the same thing because the early election – announced right now – would leave other contenders with almost no time to prepare for the election," he said.
Analysts say the opposition is weak and there is no strong alternative to Nazarbaev.
Echoing that general sentiment, Rustem Lebekov, the director of the Eurasian Center for Political Studies in Almaty, said the council was not a truly independent body and that Nazarbaev and his close circle were behind the council's decision.
Lebekov believes that the ongoing antigovernment protests in several Middle Eastern countries have played a role "to some extent" in Nazarbaev's decision. People see similarities between the situation in Kazakhstan and that of Tunisia, for instance, including the fact that both countries have had long-serving presidents, overly influential first families, corruption, and lack of reforms.
But Lebekov says it was domestic factors as well as Western criticism that played an instrumental role in Nazarbaev's decision not to go ahead with the referendum.
RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report