* Jan. 15-16 election will bring veneer of democracy
* Nazarbayev says wants to see multi-party parliament
* Says early election must take place before new crisis hits
By Robin Paxton and Mariya Gordeyeva
ALMATY, Nov 16 Kazakhstan's veteran leader
dissolved the lower house of parliament on Wednesday and called
a snap parliamentary election in mid-January, a move designed to
add a veneer of democracy to Central Asia's largest economy as a
new financial crunch looms.
The election, to be held on Jan. 15-16, will dilute the
ruling party's monopoly in the oil-producing country and install
at least a nominal opposition presence in the one-party chamber.
Many analysts expect the second-placed party to be widely
sympathetic to the ruling Nur Otan party and pose no direct
challenge to the leadership of the former Soviet republic.
A snap parliamentary election had been widely predicted
after 71-year-old President Nursultan Nazarbayev won another
five years in office in a presidential vote in April. The next
parliamentary election had been scheduled for August 2012.
Nazarbayev, who has ruled his vast nation of 16.6 million
for more than 20 years with little tolerance of dissent, held
consultations on Tuesday after members of the lower house -- the
Mazhilis -- asked him last week to dissolve the chamber.
Presidential site www.akorda.kz quoted Nazarbayev as telling
the meeting that society needed "a multi-party parliament" and
that an election campaign in the middle of next year would only
distract authorities from tackling a looming economic crisis.
"Events in the European Union affect us directly," he said.
"European states are not only Kazakhstan's natural and important
partners. They are investors and the markets for our goods."
He said a new parliament, to be elected for five years,
would better equip Kazakhstan to modernise its economy, which
still depends heavily on the export of oil and metals.
Nazarbayev announced the election in a presidential decree.
The vote from party lists will be held on Jan. 15, and the
People's Assembly of Kazakhstan, a consultative body loyal to
the president, will select its nine deputies the following day.
The upper house of parliament, the Senate, will assume the
lower house's responsibility until a new Mazhilis is formed.
Senate Chairman Kairat Mami is currently the person who
would automatically assume the presidential duties in the event
of Nazarbayev's leaving office unexpectedly.
SPRINGBOARD INTO POLITICS
Kazakhstan, Central Asia's largest economy and oil producer,
has achieved annual economic growth of around 8 percent over the
last decade and attracted more than $120 billion in foreign
investment since independence.
But the country has never held an election judged free and
fair by Western monitors.
Nazarbayev's Nur Otan party, which has 98 of the 107 seats
in the Mazhilis, controls every facet of life in Kazakhstan and
is widely expected to win an overwhelming election majority. The
People's Assembly chooses the other deputies.
Changes to the electoral law will permit the second-placed
party in the next election to enter parliament even if it falls
short of the 7 percent threshold that guarantees a presence.
Gemma Ferst, analyst with Eurasia Group, said the election
might provide a "springboard" for Timur Kulibayev, the
president's son-in-law, to enter the political arena that he has
Kulibayev, the billionaire head of the sovereign wealth
fund, is viewed by many analysts as the most likely successor to
Nazarbayev, but has always played down political ambitions.
He is seen as close to Ak Zhol, a party representing big
business and many of the elite which has risen rapidly to become
the second-largest political party in the country by membership.
"Of course we'll be going to the polls. I think we are
capable of winning 15 to 20 seats," Azat Peruashev, chairman of
the Ak Zhol party, told Reuters.
Another party, Adilet, also has designs on second place.
Tolegen Sydykhov, first deputy chairman, said he expected his
party -- which represents the interests of many lawyers and
lawmakers -- to score around 15 percent of the vote.
"Here's hoping that we follow the natural path to a
multi-party parliament, and not an artificial one," Sydykhov
Mazhilis speaker Ural Mukhamedzhanov, who also heads the Nur
Otan parliamentary faction, said he expected up to half of the
existing members of parliament to retain their seats.
"This parliament is very professional and the guys have
gained a lot of good experience," Mukhamedzhanov was quoted as
saying by news agency Novosti-Kazakhstan.
One party which will not be participating is the harshly
critical Alga! ("Forward!"), which has repeatedly been denied
official registration. Its leader has called the election
"window-dressing for the West".
The Communist Party of Kazakhstan, also fiercely critical of
Nazarbayev, was suspended for six months in October. This led it
to accuse the authorities at the time of eliminating potential
opponents in a snap vote.