Kazakhs vote to strip founding figure Nazarbayev of privileges in referendum

Kazakhs have overwhelmingly voted for constitutional changes in a referendum after deadly unrest ended founding leader Nursultan Nazarbayev’s three-decade grip on Central Asia’s richest country, the election commission says.

“The referendum can be considered validated,” electoral commission chair Nurlan Abdirov said on Monday, citing preliminary results that 77% of voters had backed the move.

It reported a turnout of over 68% in Sunday’s referendum.

The January bloodshed, which grew out of peaceful protests over a spike in car fuel prices, left more than 230 people dead and prompted authorities to call in troops from a Russia-led security bloc.

The drive for a “New Kazakhstan” in the wake of the violence has come from the man that Nazarbayev hand-picked to replace him as president in 2019, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

Tokayev, 69, described the snap referendum as a shift from “super-presidential” rule.

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

Prior to 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 afforded him influence over policymaking regardless of his formal position.

The new constitution will exclude that status.

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

Kazakhstan’s New Year crisis remains poorly understood, with a days-long 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 kilometres (1,200 miles) away – that became the epicentre of armed clashes, looting and arson.

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


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