Kazakh leader seeks political capital in constitutional reform vote

The reform is likely to give President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev the political capital he needs to run for a second term. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

ALMATY (REUTERS) - Kazakhstan votes on a constitutional reform on Sunday (June 5) promoted by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as a step towards liberalising the tightly run oil-rich nation, although it would still leave key powers in his hands.

The reform is likely to give the 69-year-old Tokayev the political capital he needs to run for a second term in the Central Asian country closely allied with Russia, this time without the backing of his former patron and predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Although in power since 2019, following Mr Nazarbayev's abrupt resignation after three decades in power, Mr Tokayev has only fully emerged as an independent figure this year after subverting an attempted coup in January and removing Mr Nazarbayev and his relatives from key positions in the government.

Aside from moves to decentralise decision-making and allow greater representation of various groups in Parliament, the reform will also strip Mr Nazarbayev of his "national leader" status which granted him lifetime privileges.

Mr Tokayev has described the proposed changes as a move from a "super presidential" system to a presidential republic with a strong Parliament.

Although critics say the reform is cosmetic, it does mark a reversal from a decades-long trend towards strengthening presidential powers.

"We are... laying the foundation for the Second Republic," Mr Tokayev said, addressing the nation on the eve of the vote.

Analysts say the move is in part a response to January's unrest, which started as a protest against a fuel price hike and evolved into a broad display of public discontent with a system which concentrates power and wealth in the hands of a few.

Mr Tokayev has also called for higher taxes on the lucrative extractive industries and high-income individuals, saying social justice would be the cornerstone of a new social contract.

Addressing domestic policy concerns would free up the career diplomat's hands to deal with unprecedented external turbulence.

Caught between major economic and security partner Russia and the West, which has invested hundreds of billions of dollars into its giant oilfields and mines, Kazakhstan is trying to navigate a way through the Ukrainian crisis without angering either side.

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