By RFE RL
By Farangis Najibullah
(RFE/RL) — Kazakhstan is holding a referendum to amend the country’s constitution amid criticism the proposed changes wouldn’t reform the nature of the authoritarian regime despite government attempts to present the overhaul as bringing democratic reforms.
Kazakh activists have called on President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev to postpone the June 5 plebiscite, saying people were not given 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 spent on the poor.
Toqaev has said the amendments pave the way for Kazakhstan to shift from a “super-presidential form of government to a presidential republic with a strong parliament.”
But the proposed changes don’t remove any significant power that the president’s office currently holds.
The changes would bar the country’s president from being a member of a political party while holding office. Perhaps even more importantly, relatives of the president would not be allowed to hold any key positions in the public sector.
That 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 maintain the right to appoint the prime minister, the cabinet members, the prosecutor-general, the security chief, the heads of the national bank, and the central election commission along with several other key posts.
The chief executive would also retain the power to appoint provincial governors and the mayors of cities, including the capital, despite widespread calls from public activists 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 held.
The one who stands to lose the most if the referendum is approved is Nazarbaev, who led Kazakhstan from 1990 until 2019 and enjoyed significant political sway as ex-president until the bloody nationwide unrest in January that left at least 238 people dead.
The revised constitution removes all references to Nazarbaev as “Elbasy” (leader of the nation) which would cement his fall from grace that began with demands by anti-government protesters to end his family’s grip on the country’s politics and riches.
Many of Nazarbaev’s wealthy influential cronies were removed from important posts and some were imprisoned following the January uprising.
Nazarbaev, 81, and his close relatives would also lose their lifelong immunity from prosecution if the referendum is approved.
Nazarbaev handpicked Toqaev to be his successor 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 the political scene.
No Time For Debates
The constitutional overhaul would reduce the number or lawmakers 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 as well as vote to confirm nominations for prosecutor-general, security chief, and other key positions submitted by the president.
Activists and political experts say the people were not given enough time to study the proposed changes, as the package of reforms was only made public 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 even for specialists to understand.
The voters will respond with a simple “yes” or “no” to the only question on the ballot asking them whether they agree with the proposed amendments.
“The authorities haven’t explained to people exactly what changes would be made to the constitution. There have been no explanations whatsoever on what the amendments mean, and people do not quite understand what they are being asked to vote for,” activist Zhumamurat Shamshi told RFE/RL.
Activists in Almaty 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 scrapped and the $38 million allocated for the referendum spent for projects like public housing or to increase social security benefits.
Esengazy Kuandyk, a political activist in Almaty, criticized the proposed changes as “empty words” that don’t represent “anything concrete.”
“If the authorities really want to move away from a super-presidency…they must disperse the current Mazhilis that was elected in [rigged] elections. That would have been a real political reform. What we’re getting now are empty words,” he said.
Orynbasar Zhanibekov, an activist in Nur-Sultan, told RFE/RL that he doesn’t expect any real political changes from Toqaev, a protege of Nazarbaev.
“Before being handpicked for the presidency, Toqaev had worked in top government jobs for 20 years. What reforms did he achieve during all of those years? None! Similarly, there are no reforms in [this referendum] either,” Zhanibekov told RFE/RL.
State-backed pollsters say more than 75 percent of respondents in recent polls supported the proposed reforms and that nearly 70 percent said they will vote in the referendum.
- Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.[email protected]