By Farangis Najibullah
(RFE/RL) – Kazakhstan is holding a referendum to change the country’s constitution amid criticism that the proposed changes would not reform the nature of authoritarian rule despite government attempts to portray the overhaul as bringing democratic reforms.
Kazakh activists have called on President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev to postpone the June 5 plebiscite, saying people have not had enough time to study the 56 proposed changes they will vote on.
Others said the referendum should be canceled altogether and the money needed for the vote should be spent on the poor.
Toqaev said the amendments pave the way for Kazakhstan to move from a “super-presidential form of government to a presidential republic with a strong parliament”.
But the proposed changes do not remove any significant power currently held by the president’s office.
The changes would prevent the country’s president from being a member of a political party while holding office. Perhaps more importantly, those close to the president would not be allowed to hold key positions in the public sector.
This measure is seen as an attempt to prevent the incredible depth of nepotism that occurred under former President Nursultan Nazarbaev.
The number of Senate members appointed by the President would be reduced from the current 15 to 10.
But the president would retain the right to appoint the prime minister, cabinet members, attorney general, security chief, heads of the national bank and central election commission as well as several other key posts.
The chief executive would also retain the power to appoint provincial governors and mayors of cities, including the capital, despite widespread calls from public campaigners for governors and mayors to be elected by voters.
The right to appoint powerful regional governors is seen as an important political tool for the president, as governors can be used to swing an election by controlling the voting process in the authoritarian country where international observers say free and fair elections are not organized.
The one who stands to lose the most if the referendum is approved is Nazarbaev, who ruled Kazakhstan from 1990 to 2019 and wielded significant political influence as a former president until the bloody nationwide unrest in January that left at least 238 dead.
The revised constitution removes all references to Nazarbaev as ‘Elbasy’ (head of the nation), which would cement his fall from grace which began with demands by anti-government protesters to end his family’s hold on politics and the wealth of the country.
Many influential wealthy friends of Nazarbayev were removed from important positions and some were imprisoned following the January uprising.
Nazarbaev, 81, and his relatives would also lose their lifetime immunity from prosecution if the referendum is approved.
Nazarbaev chose Toqaev to succeed him after he resigned in 2019. The referendum is seen as an attempt by Toqaev, 69, to formalize Nazarbaev’s “retirement” and ensure his departure from politics.
No time for debates
The constitutional revision would reduce the number of legislators in the Mazhilis, or lower house of parliament, to 98 from the current 107 members.
The Senate would also lose its power to make new laws but would vote on bills passed by the Mazhilis and would also vote to confirm nominations for attorney general, security chief and other key positions submitted by the president. .
Activists and political pundits say the people have not had enough time to study the proposed changes because the reform package was only released on May 5 – just a month before the vote.
Even some pro-government experts have acknowledged that many of the proposed changes are too complicated for even specialists to understand.
Voters will answer with a simple “yes” or “no” to the single ballot question asking if they agree with the proposed changes.
“The authorities did not explain to people exactly what changes would be made to the constitution. There has been no explanation of what the amendments mean, and people don’t quite understand what they are being asked to vote for,” activist Zhumamurat Shamshi told RFE/RL.
Almaty activists called on Toqaev to postpone the referendum for at least three months to allow time for debate and discussion.
Others say the vote should be suppressed and the $38 million allocated for the referendum should be spent on projects such as public housing or to increase Social Security benefits.
Esengazy Kuandyk, a political activist from Almaty, called the proposed changes “empty words” that represent “nothing concrete”.
“If the authorities really want to move away from a super-presidency…they have to disperse the current Mazhilis who was elected in [rigged] elections. It would have been real political reform. What we get now are empty words,” he said.
Orynbasar Zhanibekov, a Nur-Sultan activist, told RFE/RL that he does not expect any real political change from Toqaev, a protege of Nazarbaev.
“Before being handpicked for the presidency, Toqaev had held senior government positions for 20 years. What reforms has he accomplished during all these years? None! Similarly, there are no reforms in [this referendum] either,” Zhanibekov told RFE/RL.
State-backed pollsters say more than 75% of people polled in recent polls supported the proposed reforms and nearly 70% said they would vote in the referendum.
- Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of Central Asian topics, including the region’s current fight against the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.[email protected]