ASTANA (Reuters) - Kazakhstan’s president on Monday asked a constitution council to examine a proposed referendum on a 10-year extension to his rule, which would allow him to bypass two elections and lead the oil-rich nation unopposed until 2020.
Parliament, snubbing U.S. and EU criticism, has unanimously approved a referendum that would avert any potential challenge of 70-year-old President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2012 and 2017 elections for the presidency of Central Asia’s largest economy.
The constitutional council, itself headed by the president, said in a statement that it would examine whether the proposal complied with Kazakhstan’s constitution and deliver its verdict within a month.
The president cannot sign into law any bill declared unconstitutional by the council. Nazarbayev on January 6 rejected the plan to extend his powers via a referendum, but his veto was overruled by a vote in parliament on Friday.
Nazarbayev, a former steelworker known as “Papa” to many Kazakhs, is the only leader independent Kazakhstan has known. Public criticism of the president is taboo and not a single opposition politician sits in parliament.
Some analysts say a potential challenger could have emerged from within a political elite nominally loyal to Nazarbayev, but capable of producing a strong alternative candidate in elections scheduled for next year and 2017.
Many foreign investors, who have poured more than $150 billion into Kazakhstan during Nazarbayev’s two decades in power, rate the absence of a clear succession plan as the single biggest threat to political stability in the ex-Soviet state.
More than half of Kazakhstan’s 9 million registered voters signed a petition calling for the referendum to extend Nazarbayev’s rule over the world’s 9th-largest country by area.
Opponents of the initiative say Kazakhstan, which has never held elections judged free and fair by international observers, has deserted principles to which it agreed when chairing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe last year.
The United States has called it a “setback for democracy”.
Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan for two decades, can stand for election an unlimited number of times. His current seven-year term expires in 2012, after which the presidential term will be cut to five years.
Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Jon Hemming