ALMATY (Reuters) - The ruling party of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev said on Monday it wanted the veteran leader to extend his term in an early election this year, in a sign the oil-rich nation’s elite sees no apparent successor after his 26-year grip on power.
The 74-year-old former steel worker, popularly nicknamed “Papa”, has ruled his vast Central Asian nation of 17 million with a strong hand since 1989 when he became the head of the local Communist Party.
His Nur Otan party published a statement in support of a “people’s initiative” aired at the weekend by the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, which he also chairs, to hold a snap election this year and extend his rule by another five years.
“We believe the initiative on holding an early presidential election is the most correct decision in full compliance with the interests of the nation and the people,” the Nur Otan party said in a statement posted on its website (www.nurotan.kz)
The president’s office could not be reached for comments.
Nazarbayev, who keeps a tight lid on dissent and faces no real challenge from the country’s small opposition, was elected by almost 96 percent of votes in 2011 and his five-year term ends only in late 2016.
Nur Otan and the assembly, which represents the nation’s ethnic groups, both said that a new term would allow Nazarbayev to steer Kazakhstan through economic difficulties caused by low oil prices and a crisis in neighboring Russia.
With the support of his ruling party, which dominates the legislature, a new five-year term seems an easy win for the former Soviet apparatchik.
His landslide victory would end speculation about his possible successor, a question closely watched by investors.
Early polls would allow the elites close to Nazarbayev to extend the current status quo, guaranteed by the veteran leader, said Kazakh political analyst Dosym Satpayev.
“If they (the elites) were to able to, they would have canceled elections altogether,” he told Reuters. “The main question is: when will he (Nazarbayev) start the process of power handover?”
“In fact, it’s not that important, who his anointed successor is, because all representatives of our political and business elite surrounding the head of state share a similar craving for power.”
Under the law, Nazarbayev is now expected to issue a decree to set the date for an early election. After that, an early election is to be held within two months.
Nazarbayev, officially called “Leader of the Nation” and allowed by law to be elected as many times as he wants, has been criticized by the West and human rights bodies for his authoritarian methods.
Kazakhstan, a close political and trade ally of Russia, has never held an election judged to be free and fair by the West.
But Nazarbayev has also overseen market reforms, attracted more than $170 billion in foreign direct investment to Central Asia’s largest economy and managed to preserve religious and inter-ethnic stability in his mainly Muslim nation.
Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Additional reporting Raushan Nurshayeva in Astana; Editing by Elizabeth Piper and Toby Chopra