ALMATY (Reuters) - Kazakhstan’s leader Nursultan Nazarbayev on Wednesday called an early presidential election for April 26, in a move expected to extend his 26-year rule by another five.
Nicknamed “Papa” and allowed by law to serve as many terms as he wants, the veteran president is poised to win another term in office easily, although he said he had not yet decided whether to run.
Nazarbayev’s re-election would end speculation about his possible successor, a question watched closely by investors.
“In the interests of the people, taking into account their appeal to me and their united will ... I made a decision and signed a decree to call an early presidential election on April 26, 2015,” television channels showed Nazarbayev saying.
Nazarbayev’s ruling Nur Otan party and parliament appealed to him last week to secure a new five-year term early, saying it would help the nation as it faces economic difficulties.
The idea was first aired on Feb. 14 by the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, a constitutional body led by Nazarbayev, and authorities described it as an “expression of the people’s will”.
Nazarbayev, a 74-year-old former steelworker, has ruled his steppe nation of 17 million with a strong hand since 1989, when he became the head of the Communist Party of the then-Soviet republic.
He was re-elected by almost 96 percent of votes in 2011, and his current term ends only in late 2016.
Nazarbayev said he could not ignore appeals to him from ordinary people in the mainly-Muslim country to stay in office.
“As the global economic crisis deepens, our nation needs confidence in tomorrow,” he said.
“I will make a decision later regarding my participation in the future election.”
Kazakhstan, a major oil producer, has been hit hard by a plunge in world prices for its exports and by the crisis in sanctions-hit Russia, its key trading partner.
Nazarbayev, officially called “Leader of the Nation”, faces no real challenge from a small and disparate opposition.
One of his staunchest critics, wanted by Kazakh prosecutors, his former son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev, was found hanged in an Austrian jail on Tuesday while awaiting trial for murder.
Nazarbayev has clamped down on dissent but has also overseen radical market reforms and attracted $170 billion in foreign direct investment.
“In all appeals to me, I see a reflection of the people’s anxiety, their wish that no internal feuds and conflicts should trouble our country,” he said.
“People understand that in order to achieve this you need to strengthen the stability and unity of our society.”
In the past 10 days, state-controlled media have published hundreds of appeals from people beseeching Nazarbayev to extend his term.
During Nazarbayev’s reign, Kazakhstan has never held an election judged free and fair by the West, which has criticized his authoritarian methods.
Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Andrew Roche