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Kazakhstan passes a constitutional referendum months after the January riots

President Tokayev promises a "New Kazakhstan" and ends the era of former president Nazarbayev, but critics accuse him of cosmetic reform to bolster his power
President-elect of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev

AFP/VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO  -   President-elect of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev

A majority of Kazakhstan's electorate voted in favour of Sunday's constitutional referendum, which, according to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, aims to transform the country "from a 'super-presidential' system to a presidential republic with a strong parliament". 

Preliminary results, announced by the Central Election Commission, showed 77.18% support from the electorate, with a majority in all regions of the country, compared to 18.66 % who voted against. "The referendum has been validated," announced Nurlan Abdirov, Chairman of the Commission. 

With this vote, the country's citizens have given their support to a series of constitutional amendments proposed by Tokayev, in what he has characterised as a "new era in the history of independent Kazakhstan", with a move towards a "second republic" and a "new Kazakhstan", which could be a break from the era of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev. 

El presidente en funciones de Kazajistán, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, emite su voto durante las elecciones presidenciales kazajas
PHOTO/PRESIDENCY KAZAKHAJA - Kazakhstan's incumbent president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev casts his vote during the Kazakh presidential elections.

"The constitutional reform will comprehensively strengthen the system of protection of human rights and freedoms. Fair and open political competition in the country will be ensured," Tokayev declared on the campaign trail. "Together we will make the New Kazakhstan a reality, in which social justice will be the main value and the bearer of a new social contract," the Central Asian president concluded. 

The referendum has been accompanied by a certain amount of controversy, with the government accused of having given citizens too little time, barely a month, to study the complex reforms. This was stated by Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director of the NGO Human Rights Watch, who criticised Nursultan's haste, saying that he should allow "the necessary time to open up the constitutional reforms to public consultation and debate and consider amendments before the final proposals are put to a referendum". 

This vote comes a few months after the unrest earlier this year. What began as peaceful protests against rising fuel prices turned into mass demonstrations against the economic and political situation across the country, particularly in Almaty, the economic capital and most populous city.

Manifestación para protestar contra el aumento del coste del GLP tras la decisión de las autoridades kazajas de levantar los límites de los precios del gas licuado de petróleo en Almaty, Kazajistán, el 5 de enero de 2022
REUTERS/PAVEL MIKHEYEV - Demonstration to protest against the rising cost of LPG following the Kazakh authorities' decision to lift price caps on liquefied petroleum gas in Almaty, Kazakhstan, January 5, 2022.

However, the situation eventually spiralled out of control and led to heavy street violence and armed clashes. The Kazakh armed forces cracked down hard on the protests in fighting that left up to 232 people dead, most of them civilians. The chaos also led Tokayev to request the intervention of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a Russian-led alliance of several post-Soviet republics, which sent thousands of soldiers to the country.

The official version of events blamed the violence on "bandits and terrorists", but many analysts point to a power struggle between President Tokayev and the entourage of former president and hitherto strongman Nazarbayev operating in the background. 

The long-serving former president officially retired as head of state in 2019, having led the country since 1990, even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, electing Tokayev as his successor. However, Nazarbayev retained several of his most important posts, and the constitution granted him special privileges as "Leader of the Nation" (Elbasy) and "First President". 

El 2 de enero estallaron pequeñas protestas en una ciudad petrolera del oeste de Kazajistán, donde los residentes estaban descontentos por el repentino aumento de los precios del gas licuado, muy utilizado como combustible para automóviles
PHOTO/VLADIMIR TRETYAKOV/NUR.KZ via AP - Small protests broke out in a western Kazakhstan oil town on 2 January, where residents were unhappy about a sudden rise in prices for liquefied gas, widely used as a fuel for cars.

Most analysts agree that Nazarbayev continued to run Kazakhstan de facto. But during the January riots, in which the former president was one of the targets of public anger, the balance seems to have shifted in favour of Tokayev, who removed Nazarbayev from the posts he still held and led the purge of the institutions of several of his allies. 

Once calm was restored, Tokayev promised a package of political and economic reforms to respond to popular discontent. "We need to define new, fairer and more transparent 'rules of the game'," said the Kazakh leader, who in the months that followed fleshed out these promises in the present constitutional amendments.

En esta foto tomada de un video proporcionado por el Servicio de Prensa del Ministerio de Defensa de Rusia, las fuerzas de paz rusas de la Organización del Tratado de Seguridad Colectiva abandonan un avión militar ruso después de retirar sus tropas en un aeropuerto en las afueras de Ivanovo, Rusia, el sábado 15 de enero de 2022
PHOTO/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP - In this photo taken from a video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, Russian peacekeepers of the Collective Security Treaty Organization leave a Russian military aircraft after withdrawing their troops at an airport outside Ivanovo, Russia, Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022.
The "Second Republic"

The president will no longer be able to be a member of any political party, which means a loss of influence for the ruling Amanat Party (known until a few months ago as Nur Otan). In addition, his relatives will no longer be allowed to hold political office or run state enterprises, a move intended to limit nepotism, endemic during Nazarbayev's presidency. 

Nor will it be possible to return to a continuous presidency like that of the former president, as the number of consecutive presidential mandates has been reduced to two. The president's influence over the Senate will also be reduced, from electing 15 of its 49 seats to 10.

The lower house of parliament, the Mazhilis, will see its importance increase, as it will become the only chamber responsible for drafting laws, while the Senate will be limited to approving or rejecting them. Elections will also change to a mixed system, with 70% of seats being allocated proportionally and the remaining 30% being directly elected in single-member districts. The country will also return to a Constitutional Court, which was abolished in 1995. 

El primer presidente de Kazajstán participó en el procedimiento de votación del referéndum nacional sobre la introducción de enmiendas y adiciones a la Constitución de la República de Kazajistán
PHOTO/OFFICIAL WEBSITE OF THE FIRST PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC OF KAZAKHSTAN - The first president of Kazakhstan took part in the voting procedure of the national referendum on the introduction of amendments and additions to the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Provincial governors and governors of major cities will be directly elected by the people rather than appointed by the president, although the president will select the candidates for these offices. 

More importantly, the amendments remove all references to Nazarbayev from the Constitution, denying him the special privileges he enjoyed as Elbasy and "First President". Since January, Nazarbayev, who has been seen voting in the referendum, has kept a low profile, seemingly confirming his loss of influence to Tokayev, and now these amendments may be the final nail in his coffin.

For Michaël Levystone, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations, precisely avoiding the abuses of the Nazarbayev era would be the stated aim of the reform, with concrete measures to address the risks of nepotism and autocracy. "The constitutional revision in Kazakhstan is strongly marked by the desire to "de-elbasise" the country, as illustrated by the planned withdrawal of his status as Leader of the Nation," he says.

A break with the past or a cosmetic change?

However, the referendum has also been harshly criticised by some opponents, who see it as merely a "cosmetic change".

Levystone reminds us that the referendum brings with it a number of fundamental reforms, but at the same time the president will continue to have broad powers, from the leadership of the armed forces to the appointment of the country's top officials. "The Kazakh authorities' announcement of the abandonment of a 'super-presidential' regime should not make us forget that the president will remain extremely powerful in Kazakhstan (despite real guarantees of political openness)," Levystone argues.

Thus, for the Ifri researcher, "the seductive concept of a "New Kazakhstan" is only imperfectly realised in the constitutional revision being prepared in Nur-Sultan".

Moreover, Levystone concludes, "Kazakh public opinion expects profound socio-economic changes in the country", so the "New Kazakhstan" cannot be exclusively political.