In what can only be described as a democratic setback, Kazakhstan has decided to hold a referendum to extend current President Nursultan Nazarbayev's rule until 2020, bypassing a 2012 election. "A national referendum that would replace the presidential elections guaranteed by Kazakhstan's constitution," said a statement by U.S. Embassy Astana, "would be a setback for democracy. ... It is important that Kazakhstan's government and citizens honor their international commitments and continue to strive for free and fair elections."
The Kazakh constitution allows a referendum to be held if more than 200,000 people sign the petition, the Central election commission endorses it, and the President approves the proposal. The activist group collecting signatures for the referendum announced on January 5th that it has collected more than 2.5 million signatures to date. The 70-year-old Nazarbayev must decide to approve the call to hold the referendum instead of elections in 2012, which would allow him to extend his more than 20-year rule by almost another decade, until 2020. The referendum could be held as early as March.
President Nazarbayev was first appointed as the head of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic in 1989. He became the head of state two years later when the country gained its independence. A 1995 referendum prolonged his mandate until 2000. He has since been re-elected twice, but neither election met international standards for a free and fair election.
Kazakhstan has just finished its term as Chairman-in-Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, a multilateral organization based on an understanding of security that includes commitments to democracy and fundamental human rights.
The United States urges Kazakhstan's leaders to implement its National Human Rights Action and pursue democratic reforms, including holding presidential and parliamentary elections in 2012.