Kazakh President Tokayev promises reform after referendum win

More than 75% of voters back democratic reform plans as President Tokayev aims to emerge from shadow of his predecessor and former mentor Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as he casts his ballot during a constitutional referendum in Nur-Sultan.
Tokayev proposed the reform package after putting down a coup attempt amid deadly unrest in January [Pavel Mikheyev/Reuters]

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has pledged to make good on plans to push through democratic reforms in Kazakhstan, after a clear majority of voters approved constitutional amendments he had laid out in a referendum.

The Central Election Commission said on Monday that 77.18 percent of votes were in favour of the amendments, which decentralise decision-making in the oil-rich country and strip former President Nursultan Nazarbayev of his “national leader” status. Turnout was 68.06 percent.

“We have shown that we are united in building the new, just Kazakhstan,” Tokayev said in an address on Monday.

“We must review the legislation which allowed a small group of people to concentrate the country’s economic resources in their hands and enjoy preferential status.”

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.

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.

Members of a local electoral commission organise ballot papers after polls closed
The official turnout was put at just more than 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 the AFP news agency.

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 spurred 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”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies