Diplomat Tokayev returns to Kazakh politics as Senate head

ASTANA (Reuters) - Kazakhstan’s Senate elected career diplomat Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as its chairman on Wednesday, making him the oil-producing nation’s second most powerful politician after President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Nazarbayev, who has ruled the vast nation of 17 million people with a firm hand for more than two decades, nominated his longstanding ally for the post and the upper house of parliament then voted overwhelmingly to elect Tokayev as its head.

The 73-year-old president is allowed by the law to run for an unlimited number of terms and has said that he will rule as long as his health allows, and will groom a successor if he decides to step down. But he has never hinted who might eventually replace him.

Tokayev, 60, who has been director-general of the U.N. Office in Geneva since 2011, will now be No.2 in the state hierarchy, according to the constitution. He had previously held the same position of Senate head from 2007 to 2011.

In the case of the president’s death or of his incapacity to fulfill his duties, the Senate chairman is the first person to assume the responsibilities of acting president.

Kazakhstan, five times the size of France, holds 3 percent of global recoverable oil reserves. Foreign businessmen working in the country have been looking for clues on who could replace Nazarbayev at the helm of Central Asia’s largest economy.

“I am offering you a deputy secretary general of the United Nations. What else would you want?” a smiling Nazarbayev told the Senate when he presented Tokayev as his nominee.

Tokayev has also previously served as prime minister and twice as foreign minister. Before Kazakhstan became independent in 1991, he served as a Soviet diplomat in Singapore and Beijing. He is fluent in English and Chinese, and conversant in French.

He succeeds previous Senate chairman Kairat Mami, who Nazarbayev appointed as head of the Supreme Court.

Reporting by Raushan Nurshayeva; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Pravin Char