Kazakhs back sweeping reforms to move past Nazarbayev era

Nearly 80 percent vote for constitutional changes as President Tokayev aims to emerge from the shadow of his former mentor and founding leader Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Voters in Kazakhstan have overwhelmingly backed constitutional amendments in a referendum, giving political capital to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who aims to emerge from the shadow of his former mentor and founding leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Tokayev has said the referendum will decentralise the political system and outlaw nepotism. He has promoted the reform as a foundation for a new social contract in the oil-rich Central Asian country allied with Russia, and analysts say the vote could be seen as a rehearsal for his bid to win a second term as president.

“The referendum can be considered validated,” national electoral commission chair Nurlan Abdirov said on Monday, claiming that 77 percent of voters had backed the move.

The official turnout was put at just over 68 percent.

Tokayev proposed the reform package after putting down a coup attempt amid deadly unrest in January and removing his former patron 81-year-old Nazarbayev and his relatives from important positions in the public sector.

‘The era of elbasy is over’

The 69-year-old president on Sunday said that the referendum was only the beginning of his reform bid.

“The paradigm of relations between the state and society is changing, human rights are being put first,” he said after casting his vote.

Prior to January’s crisis, Tokayev was widely seen as ruling in the shadow of Nazarbayev and his super-rich relatives.

Even after stepping down as president, Nazarbayev retained the constitutional title of “elbasy”, or “leader of the nation” – a role that afforded him influence over policymaking regardless of his formal position.

The new constitution will exclude that status.

The official turnout was put at just over 68 percent [Pavel Mikheyev/Reuters]

As the new constitution does not acknowledge this status, “we can say with confidence that the era of “elbasy” is over,” Gaziz Abishev, a political analyst, told AFP.

Another amendment prevents relatives of the president from holding government positions – a clear nod to the influence of Nazarbayev’s family and in-laws, who lost powerful positions in the aftermath of violent street protests in early January.

The drive for a “New Kazakhstan” in the wake of the violence has come from the man that Nazarbayev hand-picked to replace him as president in 2019, Tokayev.

Tokayev described the snap referendum as a shift from “super-presidential” rule.

The January bloodshed – which grew out of peaceful protests over an increase in petrol prices – left more than 230 people dead and prompted authorities to call in troops from a Russia-led security bloc.

Tokayev has blamed the violence on “terrorists” seeking to seize power and issued a “shoot-to-kill” order to Kazakh troops.

But the arrest on treason charges of a Nazarbayev ally who served as national security chief at the time fuelled speculation that a leadership struggle was at the heart of the violence.

Both former and current presidents are allies of neighbouring Russia, and the arrival of a 2,000-plus detachment of peacekeepers from a Moscow-led security bloc bolstered Tokayev’s control over the situation in January.

The Kremlin claimed the intervention requested by Tokayev did not extend to any political settlement, which was “the internal affair of Kazakhstan”.

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