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President Nursultan Nazarbayev inched closer to becoming Kazakhstan’s leader for life in 2010, a year in which his country held the rotating chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Parliament granted Nazarbayev, his family, and their property virtual legal inviolability and cleared the way for a referendum to extend his term to 2020. Meanwhile, the government continued to impose authoritarian media controls and stepped up its suppression of the political opposition through dubious prosecutions and incarcerations, among other means.
Kazakh Communist Party leader Nursultan Nazarbayev won an uncontested presidential election in December 1991, two weeks before Kazakhstan gained its independence from the Soviet Union. In April 1995, Nazarbayev called a referendum on extending his five-year term, due to expire in 1996, until December 2000. A reported 95 percent of voters endorsed the move. An August 1995 referendum, which was boycotted by the opposition, approved a new constitution designed to strengthen the presidency. Nazarbayev’s supporters captured most of the seats in December 1995 elections for a new bicameral Parliament.
In October 1998, Parliament amended the constitution to increase the presidential term from five to seven years and moved the presidential election forward from December 2000 to January 1999. The main challenger was disqualified on a technicality, and Nazarbayev was reelected with a reported 80 percent of the vote.
Progovernment parties captured all but one seat in 2004 elections for the lower house of Parliament. International monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found some improvements over previous polls, but criticized the lack of political balance on election commissions, media bias in favor of pro-presidential candidates, and the politically motivated exclusion of other candidates.
The president again secured reelection in 2005 with 91 percent of the vote amid opposition allegations of fraud. An international monitoring report found intimidation and media bias in favor of the incumbent.
Political violence flared in 2005–06, with the suspicious suicide of opposition leader Zamanbek Nurkadilov in December 2005 and the murder of Altynbek Sarsenbayev, a leading member of the opposition coalition For a Just Kazakhstan, in February 2006. The investigation of Sarsenbayev’s killing pointed to the involvement of state security officers but left many questions unanswered.
Constitutional changes in May 2007 removed term limits for Nazarbayev and eliminated individual district races for the lower house of Parliament, leaving only party-slate seats filled by nationwide proportional representation. Elections under the new rules in August produced a one-party legislature, with the pro-presidential Nur Otan party taking 88 percent of the vote and no opposition parties clearing the 7 percent threshold for representation. Opposition protests foundered, and the government ignored a critical OSCE report. No opposition candidates participated in the October 2008 indirect elections for the upper house of Parliament.
In 2009, some Nur Otan legislators proposed a lifetime presidency for Nazarbayev, but the president averred that his existing access to unlimited seven-year terms was sufficient. In 2010, a constitutional amendment gave Nazarbayev immunity from prosecution and made his family’s property effectively inviolable. Later in the year, Parliament laid the groundwork for a 2011 referendum that would extend Nazarbayev’s current term to 2020.
Kazakhstan held the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010, and its tenure culminated in a summit in Astana in December that was formally successful but largely devoid of content. The government showed little leadership during ethnic violence in neighboring Kyrgyzstan in June, responding only by closing the border between the two countries. Meanwhile, Astana maintained good relations with China, Russia, and the United States, which continued to ship supplies for its operations in Afghanistan through Kazakh territory.
Kazakhstan is not an electoral democracy. The constitution grants the president considerable control over the legislature, the judiciary, and local governments. The removal of term limits for the country’s “first president” in May 2007 cleared the way for President Nursultan Nazarbayev to seek reelection at the end of his current seven-year term in 2012. A referendum initiative approved by Parliament in December 2010 and slated for 2011 could extend Nazarbayev’s term to 2020.