Nazarbayev's re-election should help dispel concerns over the medium-term foreign policy course of the country
This article originally appeared at Business New Europe
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled the Central Asian nation with an iron fist for more than a quarter of a century, has agreed to his Nur Otan party's nomination to stand for another term. The 2007 amendment to the Kazakh constitution abolished term limits for Nazarbayev, as first president, technically allowing him to stay in power for life.
Nur Otan convened an unscheduled party conference in Astana on March 11 to nominate Nazarbayev as presidential candidate. This followed a request in February for the president to call a snap presidential poll to re-elect him in the face of a "new wave of the financial and economic crisis" and "serious geopolitical tension" in the region caused by Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in eastern Ukraine. Kazakhstan will go to polls on April 26.
"I've come here to speak to you and perhaps agree with your nomination of my candidacy with only one aim of proposing [to solve] new tasks, complicated tasks that we are facing," Nazarbayev, 74, told the party conference. "As to the question of how to be president and who should be president I've said that a person should go for election if you have a set of programmes and goals through which you want to improve the life of your people. If there is no such goal or objective, there is no need to go there."
Nazarbayev's consent to stand for re-election will end talk about his possible campaigning for his eldest daughter Dariga, 51, the deputy speaker of parliament's lower chamber, that his silence about the election had given rise to. Observers believe that the proposal to hold the election first floated by the Assembly of Kazakhstan's People, a forum for the country's minorities appointed by the president, could not have been possible without authorisation from Nazarbayev himself.
The presidential poll was brought forward from 2016 because analysts believe the authorities are afraid that Nazarbayev's re-election would have been hampered by the deepening economic crisis in the country and potential social discontent over falling living standards. Kazakhstan is currently facing serious economic challenges caused by the low price of oil and rising pressure to devalue the currency, the tenge, from the weakening Russian ruble since Moscow annexed Crimea a year ago. Russia is Kazakhstan's main trading partner, accounting for a third of its imports.
Since the near 50% drop in the value of the ruble and the price of oil since 2014, the central bank has come under increasing pressure to devalue the tenge, but the government has put off the move. The National Bank of Kazakhstan devalued the tenge twice – by 25% and 19% – in 2009 and 2014, both times in February. The currency is now trading at slightly over KZT185 to the dollar, but in January Morgan Stanley predicted the rate will fall to KZT260 by the end of the first half of 2015.
The announcement of the snap poll has postponed a decision on devaluation until at least after the election and possibly until even after the inauguration, as it would be hard for Nazarbayev to sell his re-election as a guarantee of prosperity and stability to the population if people's savings had been wiped out.
The re-election will give the president a vote of confidence at a time when the ruling elite is afraid that the growing deterioration of society's mood could undermine support for the president. Nazarbayev, who was re-elected in 2011 with 95.5% of the vote on a 90% turnout, is expected to be re-elected with a similar share of the vote: anything lower than his performance in the previous election will be seen as a drop in popular support for the ageing president. Kazakhstan has never held any election judged free and fair by the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe.
The other key reason for the early election is the complicated international situation caused by the Russia-West standoff. Nazarbayev's re-election should help dispel concerns over the medium-term foreign policy course of the country.
The silence that enveloped Nazarbayev's election plans since the announcement of the election on February 25 had given rise to rampant speculation in the commercial capital, Almaty, that Nazarbayev might campaign for Dariga. The suicide of her former husband, Rakhat Aliyev, one of the most hated figures in the Kazakh establishment, has reduced objections to keeping the presidency within the family. However, Dariga's lack of executive experience – she has never been appointed regional governor or held a government post – would have still made her a controversial choice.