Kazakh leader's allies rush parliament vote to dodge deepening crisis

ALMATY (Reuters) - Lawmakers loyal to Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev asked him on Wednesday to call a snap parliamentary election, which would allow the veteran leader to reaffirm his grip on power before discontent over economic hardship peaks.

The vote was originally due to take place at the end of this year or early 2017. But if oil prices remain depressed or fall further, the Central Asian nation’s economy may suffer heavy damage by that time, making it harder for Nazarbayev’s allies to retain total control over the legislature.

Holding the poll early would minimize that risk, according to political analysts who see the move as orchestrated and expect Nazarbayev to approve it in the coming days. The two previous parliamentary elections, in 2012 and 2007, had also been called early.

The falling price for oil, Kazakhstan’s biggest export, drove a 45 percent depreciation of the local tenge currency last year, its biggest drop against the dollar in 20 years.

From Jan. 1, the government increased state pensions by 9 percent and boosted public sector salaries by up to 40 percent, partly offsetting the impact of the depreciation.

“In line with tradition, elections are being held early in order to take advantage of the effect from increased public sector payouts,” said political analyst Aidos Sarym.

“The economic situation will worsen in the future and the authorities will not be able to achieve the desired result without excessive strain.”

The lower house of parliament voted unanimously for a resolution seeking an early election. There are no opponents of Nazarbayev in the 107-seat lower house, which is dominated by his Nur Otan party and routinely approves bills drafted by the government.

The World Bank said last week it estimated that Kazakhstan’s gross domestic product growth had slowed to 0.9 percent in 2015 from 4.4 percent a year earlier. This year, the bank sees just a slight acceleration to 1.1 percent.

Running the campaign during the winter, when temperatures in some regions of the country fall below -40 degrees Celsius, also means there will be much fewer people at any opposition rallies, Sarym said.

Kazakhstan has never held an election judged free and fair by Western observers.

Another political analyst, Alexander Knyazev, said the move towards a snap poll could also be a precaution against risks related to potential transfer of power from 75-year-old Nazarbayev who has no apparent successor.

“Some personnel rotation is needed in order to ensure their loyalty,” Knyazev said.

Nazarbayev himself, in power since 1989, was re-elected for another five-year term last April.

Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Ryan Woo and Andrew Heavens