Astana: More than half of Kazakhstan`s nine million voters have backed a referendum to extend veteran leader Nursultan Nazarbayev`s rule of the oil-rich Central Asian state for a third decade, organisers of the plan said on Wednesday.
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, bypassing a Presidential Election scheduled for next year.
Organisers said the "people`s initiative" for the plebiscite had delivered more than five million signatures to the Central Election Commission, a powerful show of support for a movement that has grown rapidly from a citizens` forum in late December.
"We are sure that we have collected the signatures of more than half of the electorate in Kazakhstan," Yerlan Sydykov, the leader of the referendum initiative, told a news conference.
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 has overseen more than USD 150 billion in foreign investment during more than two decades as leader of Kazakhstan, the world`s largest uranium miner and a major exporter of oil, gas and industrial metals.
The President, who was a former member of the Soviet Communist Party politburo, announced in September that he would seek a new term in the 2012 election and that he expected no serious challenge to his continued rule.
He rejected the referendum plan on January 06, after senators voted unanimously to request his support for the initiative. But Parliament, which next meets on January 14, could still force it through should four-fifths of members defy Nazarbayev`s decree.
"Given that 100 percent of deputies from both chambers asked the president to agree to the referendum, I have no doubt that this issue will have a positive outcome," said senator Anatoly Bashmakov. The referendum could take place as early as March.
`Will of the people`
Bashmakov said the initiative group spoke for "millions of citizens of Kazakhstan". Reading from an address to be sent to Nazarbayev, he said: "The will of the people is sacred to you and you have never allowed anybody to ignore it."
But the initiative has been criticised by opposition groups who say Kazakhstan has deserted principles to which it consented when chairing Europe`s main security and rights watchdog, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, last year.
The US embassy in Kazakhstan, in a statement issued on January 07, welcomed Nazarbayev`s rejection of the referendum while also urging others to avoid any steps that would "violate the Constitution of Kazakhstan" and damage the President`s legacy.
"Holding a referendum is our internal affair, and nobody has the right to meddle in our internal affairs," said Rozakul Khalmuradov, deputy in the lower Mazhilis chamber of Parliament.
Kazakhstan has never held an election judged free or fair by international observers. Nazarbayev, as the country`s first President, has the unique privilege of being able to stand for election an unlimited number of times.