Kazakh President calls snap election to buy time to groom a successor

Kazakhstan's veteran leader has called a election on 3 April, almost two years before his current presidential term ends, pre-empting any challenge to his 22-year rule from a restless political elite.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev will almost certainly win the snap poll and extend his presidency, buying time to groom a successor to run the Central Asian state's $140bn economy.

Mr Nazarbayev, a former steel-worker who has implemented market reforms against all argument, announced the date yesterday, days after rejecting a plan – supported by parliament and 55 per cent of voters – to extend his rule unopposed until 2020.

The United States welcomed Mr Nazarbayev's move, having called the referendum a "setback for democracy". Analysts say the referendum was driven by loyalists who had feared an imminent challenge from within the President's inner circle.

By running for election now, Mr Nazarbayev will temporarily quell a behind-the-scenes struggle for influence. "He needs to calm the elite," said one analyst, Aidos Sarym.

Mr Nazarbayev, known as "Papa" to many Kazakhs, can run for an unlimited number of terms. He rose to become a member of the last Soviet Communist Party Politburo and has ruled Kazakhstan since 1989, two years before independence.

Many foreign investors, who have poured more than $150bn into the Kazakhstan, rate the absence of a clear succession as the biggest threat to stability in a country with 3 per cent of the world's recoverable oil reserves.

The election has been called at a time when a wave of popular anger is sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. Like Egypt, Kazakhstan is an important regional economy led by a long-serving strongman president. But Mr Nazarbayev remains popular among his 16 million people after presiding over annual economic growth that has averaged 8 per cent in the past decade.

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