Kazakhstan's veteran leader has called a presidential election on April 3, nearly two years before his current term ends, pre-empting any challenge to his 22-year rule from within a restless political elite.
Nursultan Nazarbayev will almost certainly win the snap poll and extend his presidency into a third decade, buying time to groom a pliant successor to run the Central Asian state's $140 billion economy and fending off parallels to Arab world leaders.
Nazarbayev, a former steelworker who has implemented market reforms while brooking no dissent, announced the date on Friday, only days after rejecting a plan -- supported by parliament and 55 percent of voters -- to extend his rule unopposed until 2020.
The United States promptly welcomed Nazarbayev's move, having earlier called the referendum a "setback for democracy".
By running for election now, Nazarbayev will temporarily quell a behind-the-scenes struggle for influence. Some analysts say the referendum idea was driven by loyalists who had feared an imminent challenge from within the president's inner circle.
"He needs to calm the elite," said analyst Aidos Sarym.
Nazarbayev can run for an unlimited number of terms.
Nazarbayev has also called the election at a time when a wave of popular anger is sweeping countries in North Africa and the Middle East. The latest crisis in Egypt follows a revolt that toppled the leader of Tunisia.
Like Egypt, Kazakhstan is a major regional economy led by a long-serving strongman president. But Nazarbayev remains popular among his nation's 16 million people after presiding over annual economic growth that has averaged 8 percent in the last decade.
Kazakhstan, Central Asia's largest economy, boasts per capita gross domestic product of more than $9,000 -- a twelvefold increase since 1994 and four times that of Egypt.
ReutersLast Mod: 04 Şubat 2011, 16:21