Late in 1997, President Nazarbaev unveiled a long-term vision for Kazakhstan's development, the Kazakhstan 2030 program. Increasing democratization did not figure in the seven strategic priorities it outlined. It called instead for the creation of an "effective and modern corps of civil servants in Kazakhstan who are committed to their work and able to act as the people's representatives... ."32
Six weeks after the Russian financial crisis, however, Nazarbaev drastically increased his rhetorical commitment to democracy. His September 30 speech, widely disseminated by Kazakhstan diplomatic agencies abroad, outlined a series of extensive measures to introduce more public participation in government, while concentrating for the most part on planned economic measures intended to head off the Russian contagion.33
Unnamed diplomats and other international sources interviewed in Kazakhstan indicated that throughout 1998, and particularly after parliament adopted amendments to the Law on Elections in May, there were persistent rumors in the country that the government would call early presidential elections.34 The amendments prohibited anyone from standing for election (to any post) who had been found guilty in the previous year of any violation of anti-corruption legislation, or who had been found guilty by a court of any administrative violations. They also added the requirement that potential candidates submit to the Central Electoral Commission documents certifying their mental health.35
Western sources initially reported being "encouraged" by Nazarbaev's seemingly categorical denials that elections would be speeded up. Those denials softened decisively when Nazarbaev stated publicly in early October that though holding early presidential elections would contravene the constitution, "there is a grain of rationality in this suggestion."36 After meeting with lawmakers in an all-day closed-door session on October 7, 1998, President Nazarbaev signed into law constitutional amendments eliminating the sixty-five year age limit on officeholders (he will turn sixty-five in July of 2005), increasing the president's term from five to seven years, and removing the 50 percent minimum participation threshold for presidential elections established in the 1995 constitution.37
The next day, October 8, Parliament appealed to President Nazarbaev to shorten his term in office (scheduled to expire in 2001) and to hold new elections in January 1999.38 International observers remarked politely that this call, like previous ones, seemed "staged." The same day, Nazarbaev signed the provisions into law, setting elections for January 10.
Some Kazakhstani commentators have questioned the legitimacy of the parliamentary and presidential actions under Kazakh law on the grounds that they violated the legal status of referenda. When the April 1995 referendum canceled the presidential vote scheduled for early in 1996, it set the date for the next presidential election as December 2000.39 According to chapter IV, article 35, paragraph 2 of the Presidential Decree with the Force of Constitutional Law on Republican Referenda, issued in November 1995:
Inconsistencies between decisions taken by referenda, the Constitution, constitutional laws, laws and other normative legal acts of the Republic are to be eliminated by changing the Constitution, constitutional laws, laws and other normative acts to bring them into correspondence with the decisions taken by referenda.40
In other words, no laws passed by the Parliament or the president could take legal precedence over decisions mandated through a referendum. Referenda can be changed or amended only through other referenda. Many opposition leaders called for a new popular referendum 41
Nevertheless, no constitutional challenges to the new provisions were brought, and plans for elections went ahead. President Nazarbaev, Communist Party leader Serikbolsyn Abdildin, and former prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin immediately announced their intention of running for president. On October 16, the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) issued instructions setting out the procedures for candidates' registration, mandating that persons should put forward their candidacy or be nominated by November 10, and, after their eligibility is established by the commission, should submit all materials required for registration by November 30.42 Regulations set that date as the start of the official campaign.
By that date, the CEC had registered four candidates: the incumbent president, Communist Party leader Abdildin, and two political unknowns, General Gany Kasymov, head of the State Customs Committee, and Senator Engels Gabbasov, a writer. After a campaign characterized by international organizations as "falling far short" of international standards, and by the U.S. State Department as "disappointing," Nazarbaev won reelection with more than 79 percent of the vote. Election officials claimed that 86.28 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.4332 N. Nazarbaev, Kazakhstan 2030; Poslanie Prezidenta strany narodu Kazakhstanu (Almaty, 1998), p. 33. 33 "President of Kazakhstan Announces Bold Economic and Democratization Reform Program," government press release, Astana, September 30, 1998. 34 Karavan, March 27, 1998; Agence France Presse, October 7, 1998; Human Rights Watch interview, Almaty, December 5, 1998. 35 "On Amendments and Additions to the Decree of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan with the Force of Constitutional Law on Elections in the Republic of Kazakhstan," Kazakhstanskaia pravda, May 8, 1998. 36 Agence France Presse, October 6, 1998. 37 Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan on the Introduction of Changes and Amendments to the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Kazakhstanskaia pravda, October 8, 1998. 38 Resolution of the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan on Curtailment of the Term in Office of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Nazarbaev N.A., on the Calling of Presidential Elections in the Republic of Kazakhstan, Kazakhstanskaia pravda, October 9, 1998. 39 The text of the referendum asked voters to agree or disagree to "extend the term in office of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan N.A. Nazarbaev, who was elected nationwide on 1st December 1991, until 1st December 2000."Kazakhstanskaia pravda, April 11, 1995. The Central Electoral Commission reported official results that 91.2 percent of registered voters cast ballots, 95.46 supported the measure and 3.76 were against. Moscow, Interfax, May 5, 1995. 40 Signed into law November 2, 1995. Vesti Kazakhstana, November 4, 1995. 41 Appeal to the people of Kazakhstan, October 12, 1998, signed by eighteen public figures, including leaders of the opposition movement Azamat, the Communist Party, the Russian Community, leading journalists, and human rights and environmental activists. See also reports on a press conference given by Azamat, October 9. Moscow Interfax in English, October 9, 1998. 42 "Informatsiia tsentral'noi izbiratel'noi komissii Respubliki Kazakhstana o poriadke vydvizhenie i registratsii kandidatov v Prezidenty Respubliki Kazakhstana," Kazakhstanskaia pravda, October 16, 1998. 43 Heather Clark, "Nazarbaev wins crushing re-election, promises democratic reform," AFP, January 11, 1999. The CEC moderated initial results giving Nazarbaev an 81 percent victory downward to 79.78 percent. Itar-Tass, January 16, 1999. The OSCE refused to send a full observer mission to monitor the vote, judging that the legislative framework for the elections, as well as access to the ballot and to the media for opposition candidates, fell short of Kazakhstan's OSCE commitments. OSCE/ODIHR Election Assessment Mission, Republic of Kazakhstan 1999, Preliminary Statement, Almaty, January 11, 1999.