Both houses of the Kazakhstan Parliament [official website] Friday voted unanimously to amend the constitution to authorize a referendum that would extend the term of President Nursultan Nazarbayev [official website; BBC profile] to 2020, bypassing two presidential elections. The vote overruled Nazarbayev's decision last week to veto the proposed referendum [Reuters report]. Nazarbayev's current term is set to expire in 2012 [AP report], but if he approves the parliamentary vote, he could achieve a 30-year term in office. Supporters of the referendum maintain that it is necessary [Interfax report] in order to ensure that Nazarbayev can continue to address issues facing the country. They also indicated that continuity of government is necessary for the country's continued growth. Opponents have argued that Nazarbayev's political party is attempting to eliminate any political competition. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) [official website] emphasized the need for democratic elections [press release], arguing that the proposed referendum "does not offer a genuine choice between political alternatives and would infringe on the opportunity of citizens to hold their representatives accountable and to effectively exercise their right to vote and be elected." The referendum will reportedly take place as early as March 2011.
The Kazakhstan Parliament initially approved [JURIST report] the referendum last month. In June, Nazarbayev announced that he would not sign a controversial law [JURIST report] that would grant him several presidential powers for life, even if he stepped down from office. Nazarbayev's supporters believed that the president has earned such protections due to his ability as a nation builder. The draft law moved quickly through Kazakhstan's parliament in May with the upper and lower [JURIST reports] houses approving the bill in under a week. In 2007, Nazarbayev approved a constitutional amendment [JURIST report] removing term limits on his own presidency, effectively allowing him to remain president for life.