ALMATY (Reuters) - Kazakhstan's veteran leader has called a presidential election on April 3, nearly two years before his current term ends, pre-empting any challenge to his 22-year rule from within a restless political elite.
Nursultan Nazarbayev will almost certainly win the snap poll and extend his presidency into a third decade, buying time to groom a pliant successor to run the Central Asian state's $140 billion economy and fending off parallels to Arab world leaders.
Nazarbayev, a former steelworker who has implemented market reforms while brooking no dissent, announced the date on Friday, only days after rejecting a plan -- supported by parliament and 55 percent of voters -- to extend his rule unopposed until 2020.
The United States promptly welcomed Nazarbayev's move, having earlier called the referendum a "setback for democracy."
By running for election now, Nazarbayev will temporarily quell a behind-the-scenes struggle for influence. Some analysts say the referendum idea was driven by loyalists who had feared an imminent challenge from within the president's inner circle.
"He needs to calm the elite," said analyst Aidos Sarym.
Nazarbayev, known as "Papa" to many Kazakhs, can run for an unlimited number of terms. He rose to become a member of the last Soviet Communist Party Politburo and has ruled Kazakhstan since 1989, two years before independence.
Many foreign investors, who have poured more than $150 billion into Nazarbayev's Kazakhstan, rate the absence of a clear succession plan as the biggest threat to stability in a country with 3 percent of the world's recoverable oil reserves.
Nazarbayev has also called the election at a time when a wave of popular anger is sweeping countries in North Africa and the Middle East. The latest crisis in Egypt follows a revolt that toppled the leader of Tunisia.
Like Egypt, Kazakhstan is a major regional economy led by a long-serving strongman president. But Nazarbayev remains popular among his nation's 16 million people after presiding over annual economic growth that has averaged 8 percent in the last decade.
Kazakhstan, Central Asia's largest economy, boasts per capita gross domestic product of more than $9,000 -- a twelvefold increase since 1994 and four times that of Egypt.
By rejecting the referendum, Nazarbayev has shown resolve to secure Western backing and extend diplomatic gains achieved when Kazakhstan last year became the first former Soviet state to chair the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The OSCE, Europe's main security and rights body, welcomed Nazarbayev's decision to hold a snap election, saying Kazakhstan had promised during the organization's December summit in Astana to hold "democratic elections at reasonable intervals."
"Nazarbayev's ambition is to present his economic and political development model as a blueprint for the region. He has done a lot to improve his country's image," Lilit Gevorgyan, analyst at IHS Global Insight, said.
Nevertheless, Kazakhstan has never held an election judged free and fair by international observers. A fragmented and muted opposition, without a single seat in parliament, is unlikely to mount a serious challenge with less than two months to prepare.
"The election campaign in Kazakhstan resembles a one-actor show, where all the other candidates are understudies," said political analyst Dosym Satpayev.
Bulat Abilov, co-chairman of the "Azat" Nationwide Social-Democratic Party and a potential opposition candidate, said he believed the president had called the election now because the situation will worsen over the next two years.
Presidential aide Yermukhamet Yertysbayev said the opposition had only itself to blame for failing to organize itself into a coherent unit since the last election in 2005.
"They should have learned their lessons," he said. "The opposition has lost five years, in which they have failed to unite behind one leader."