Astana: Kazakhstan`s Parliament on Friday voted unanimously in favor of a referendum to extend President Nursultan Nazarbayev`s term for a third decade, a move that would allow the veteran leader to bypass an election in 2012.
The national referendum, which the United States has called a "setback for democracy," would clear the way for Nazarbayev to lead Central Asia`s largest economy unopposed until 2020.
"The people want Nursultan Abishevich to continue building and strengthening our state, and the will of our people is law," said Yerlan Nigmatulin, a deputy in the Mazhilis lower house of parliament, referring to the president by name and patronymic.
A "people`s initiative" for the plebiscite has collected more than 5 million signatures backing the plan, representing 55 percent of the electorate in Kazakhstan, the Central Election Commission said.
Some analysts see the referendum as an attempt to avert a challenge to the 70-year-old Nazarbayev from members of the political elite, who are nominally loyal to him but could produce a strong alternative candidate for an election in 2012.
Known as "Papa" to many Kazakhs, the former steelworker is the only leader independent Kazakhstan has known. Many investors say the absence of a succession plan is the biggest threat to political stability in the world`s 9th-largest country by area.
Nazarbayev, once a member of the Soviet Communist Party politburo, has overseen more than $150 billion in foreign investment during more than two decades as leader of Kazakhstan, the world`s largest uranium miner and a major oil exporter.