ALMATY The United States on Tuesday welcomed Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev's decision to scrap a referendum which would have handed him a third decade in power by skipping elections.
Last month Washington condemned Kazakhstan's plans to extend Nazarbayev's rule until 2020, bypassing elections due in 2012 and 2017, saying such a move would be "a setback for democracy."
On Monday, Nazarbayev supported the Constitutional Council's ruling that such a referendum would be unconstitutional and called an early election to be held later this year. His current term had been due to expire at the end of 2012.
"The United States welcomes the decision by President Nazarbayev not to pursue a national referendum that would extend the president's term to 2020," the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan said in a statement.
"We look forward to hearing further details about the government's plans to hold an early presidential election."
Kazakhstan's parliament is expected this week to set a date for the election, which Nazarbayev is likely to win. An aide to the president has said the vote may take place in early May.
International observers say Kazakhstan has never held a free or fair election.
Nazarbayev, a 70-year-old former steelworker who was a member of the last Soviet Communist Party Politburo, has ruled his resource-rich Central Asian nation of about 16 million people for more than 20 years.
Nicknamed "Papa" by many Kazakhs, he has held a tight lid on dissent and overseen bold market reforms which has helped to lure massive foreign investment, including from U.S. firms, mainly to the country's lucrative oil and metals industries.
Nazarbayev's decision comes as a wave of popular anger is sweeping countries in North Africa and the Middle East.
(Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Louise Ireland)