Kazakhstan constitutional referendum expected to pass

Kazakhstan is expected to pass amendments to its constitution following a referendum on Sunday, according to the exit polls.

A government telegram channel said that three exit polls showed constitutional changes passing with over 74% of voters in support.

The drive for a “New Kazakhstan” in the wake of the violence has come from the man that former President Nursultan Nazarbayev hand-picked as his successor in 2019, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

Tokayev, 69, describes the snap referendum as a shift from a “super-presidential” rule that will strengthen parliament.

But the absence of special privileges for 81-year-old Nazarbayev is the most eye-catching change to the constitution.

Before January’s crisis, Tokayev was widely seen as ruling in the shadow of Nazarbayev and his super-rich relatives.

Even after stepping down as president, Nazarbayev retained the constitutional title of “Elbasy,” or “Leader of the Nation” – a role that accorded him influence over policymaking regardless of his formal position.

The new constitution does away with that status.

Another amendment prevents relatives of the president from government holding positions – a clear nod to the influence of Nazarbayev’s family and in-laws, who lost powerful positions in the aftermath of the violence.

‘A formality’

In the largest city, Almaty, polling stations saw a slow trickle of voters in cloudless, breezy summer conditions.

Ayan, an 18-year-old student voting for the first time, said he welcomed the former president’s removal from the basic law.

“He has his place in our history textbooks, but all citizens should be equal in the constitution,” he said, after casting his vote at his university, where a small group of activists protested for the release of political and against the vote.

In the capital, Nur-sultan, named after Nazarbayev, a 46-year-old businessperson called Bolat told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that he did not intend to vote.

“It’s a formality to cement the position of the current leadership. The result will be the same,” he said.

The constitution is almost certain to pass and there has been no visible “no” campaign.

Voting in Almaty and Nur-Sultan concluded at 8 pm local time (2 pm GMT) and an hour later in the west of the vast country, with a government-endorsed pollster’s exit poll expected on Sunday night.

Kazakhstan’s New Year crisis remains poorly understood, with a dayslong internet shutdown at the peak of the unrest helping to further obscure the events.

Protests stirred in the oil-producing west over a New Year fuel price hike, but it was Almaty – 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) away – that became the epicenter of armed clashes, looting and arson.

Nur-Sultan, which was called Astana prior to 2019, remained largely untouched.

leadership struggle

Tokayev blamed the violence on “terrorists” seeking to seize power and issued a “shoot-to-kill” order to Kazakh troops.

But the arrest on treason charges of a Nazarbayev ally who served as national security chief at the time fueled speculation that a leadership struggle was at the heart of the violence.

After stability was restored, Tokayev criticized Nazarbayev for allowing inequality to fester, while crediting his mentor’s state-building achievements.

Both former and current presidents are allies of neighboring Russia, and the arrival of a 2,000-plus detachment of peacekeepers from a Moscow-led security bloc bolstered Tokayev’s control over the situation in January.

The Kremlin claimed the intervention requested by Tokayev did not extend to any political settlement, which was “the internal affair of Kazakhstan.”

Nazarbayev has made few public appearances since the crisis but cast his vote in the capital Sunday after expressing support for Tokayev and the changes.

In an interview published Monday, he said that his relatives should be “held accountable” if they committed crimes but were entitled to a fair trial – an apparent reference to nephew Kairat Satybaldy, a businessperson presently detained on embezzlement charges.

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