In a typical display of loyalty to President Nursultan Nazarbayev, on May 18 Kazakhstan’s parliament almost unanimously approved constitutional amendments proposed by the head of the state at a joint session of parliament only a day earlier.
Addressing legislators on May 17, Nazarbayev had offered a range of impressive political reform packages principally aimed at enhancing the role of the legislative branch. First, Nazarbayev proposed increasing the number of deputies in parliament from 116 to 154. According to the newly approved constitutional amendments, the lower house of parliament (majilis) will get 30 additional seats, and the number of senators will rise from seven to 15. The rest of the seats will be filled by deputies elected on party lists. Other seats in parliament are reserved for members of the Association of the People of Kazakhstan, formerly known as the Association of the PeopleS of Kazakhstan.
On the surface, the constitutional amendments echo the opposition’s long-time demands for granting more power to parliament and removing obstacles for political parties to get into parliament. Nazarbayev said that the president should consult with parliament members and factions of political parties before nominating a candidate for the post of prime minister. Earlier, the State Commission on Political Reforms proposed that half of the members of parliament should be elected by a first-past-the-post- system and the other half by proportional representation. Nazarbayev said, “We must go further,” calling for all of the seats in the majilis to be determined by proportional representation (Khabar TV, May 17).
The most significant part of Nazarbayev’s address concerns Article 42, Paragraph 5 of the Constitution, amended at the president’s insistence. Nazarbayev proposed reducing the presidential term from seven years to five years. However, during the ensuing parliamentary debate, MPs Romin Madinov and Vladimir Nekhoroshev suggested a clause eliminating this term limit for the first president of Kazakhstan. The controversial amendment was approved by parliament by an overwhelming majority, with one abstention and two deputies voting against. Some members of parliament, led by Yerlan Nygmatulin, called on legislators to drop the new presidential term limit from the list of amendments, but finally gave up their demands (Liter, May 18).
Now Nazarbayev, whose term in office officially expires in 2012, has the opportunity to become president of Kazakhstan for life, while his successors will be allowed to hold only two five-year terms.
Nazarbayev did not reveal his intention to stay at the helm of the state until the very last moment. In a recent interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais, he evasively said the question of extending his presidential term could be decided only by parliament or by referendum (ElPais.com, April 11). But even Nazarbayev’s closest advisors take a grim view of the new political reforms. A few days before the joint session of parliament, Mukhtar Aliev, the father of presidential son-in-law Rakhat Aliev, told Kazakhstan Today news agency he was “deeply concerned” by unconfirmed information about the possible constitutional amendments relating to presidential term limits. Opposition leader Kazis Togusbayev thinks that by creating term limits that do not come into effect until after 2012, President Nazarbayev has paved the way for his undivided power as an absolute monarch who enjoys the authority to dissolve parliament at any time he thinks appropriate (Azat, May 19).
In the final analysis, Nazarbayev’s new political reform drive has produced very few results. Presidential term limits, while billed as an important amendment to the constitution, in fact change nothing in the current structure of power. Parliament remains closely controlled by the president, who may dissolve it after formal consultation with the chairmen of the senate and majilis.
Speaking before members of parliament, Nazarbayev underscored the primacy of presidential rule for Kazakhstan while delegating some power to parliament. The legislature is entitled to select two-thirds of the members of the Constitutional Council, Central Election Committee, and Audit Committee. At the regional level, akims (governors) of the regions will be appointed on the approval of maslikhats (local legislative bodies). However, given the de facto nominal role assigned to maslikhats in the regions and the high-handed treatment of them by governors, it is hard to believe the maslikhats would play any significant part in defining the composition of local government.
Obviously, presidential term limits and the reconfigured parliament allow Nazarbayev to create an illusion of democratic procedures while keeping the reins of power securely in his own hands. At the same time, his indefinitely extended presidency will put an end to speculation about the presidential succession among his advisors and among his family members, strengthening his hand. But the haste with which the constitutional amendments was pushed through the docile parliament gives grounds for new speculations about possible early parliamentary elections, which could be held simultaneously with the maslikhat elections scheduled for September of this year. If parliamentary elections take place in 2007, the new parliament would end its term in 2012, when Nazarbayev had been formally set to leave office at the age of 70. He has been given ample time to live up to his promises.