Kazakhstan passed changes to its constitution through a referendum 05 June 2022, after deadly unrest ended founding leader Nursultan Nazarbayev's three-decade grip on Central Asia's richest country. The constitutional changes passed with more than 74 percent of voters in support.
The January 2022 bloodshed -- which grew out of peaceful protests over a spike in car fuel prices -- left more than 230 people dead and prompted authorities to call in troops from a Russia-led security bloc. The drive for a "New Kazakhstan" in the wake of the violence came from the man that Nazarbayev hand-picked to replace him as president in 2019, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who described the snap referendum as a shift from "super-presidential" rule that will strengthen parliament.
But it is the absence of special privileges for 81-year-old Nazarbayev that is the most eye-catching change to the constitution. Prior to January's crisis, Tokayev was widely seen as ruling in the shadow of Nazarbayev and his super-rich relatives. Even after stepping down as president, Nazarbayev retained the constitutional title of "Elbasy", or "Leader of the Nation" -- a role that afforded him influence over policymaking regardless of his formal position. The new constitution does away with that status.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev had been in office since Kazakhstan became independent. Kazakhstan is a constitutional republic with a strong presidency. The president is the head of state. The president also is the commander in chief of the armed forces and may veto legislation that has been passed by the Parliament.
The principles of the government organization of the Republic of Kazakhstan are reflected in the country’s Constitution, which was adopted at the national referendum on 30 August, 1995. Being a kind of compromise between an old and new political structure, the reflection of the attempt of introducing a model of western democracy, which was being built nearly centuries on post-soviet ground, the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan of 1993 initially comprised contradictions. At 30th August 1995 referendum a new Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan was adopted, eliminating some of the blemishes of former state structure.
The most recent major constitutional reform was implemented in 2007. According to the Constitution, Kazakhstan is a unitary state with a presidential form of governance. The unitary nature of governmental structure of the country precludes the existence of other nation-states or autonomous districts in the country. The President is the Head of State and its highest official, who determines the main directions for domestic and foreign policy.
On May 18, 2007, a constitutional amendment was enacted reducing presidential terms from seven years to five. The approved constitutional amendment allowed President Nazarbayev to run for an unlimited number of five-year terms and applied only to him. The Constitution's original provision calling for a maximum of two five-year terms will still apply to all future Presidents of Kazakhstan. The President is elected on the basis of universal equal and direct voting by secret ballot, for a term of 5 years, and cannot remain in power longer than two terms in row.
On June 15, 2010, Parliament passed a new law making Nazarbayev the "Leader of the Nation,” which gives him a role in domestic and foreign policy decision-making after his eventual retirement and grants enhanced immunity for him and his family. Two June 2010 leader-of-the-nation laws establish President Nazarbayev as chair of the Kazakhstan People’s Assembly, grant him lifetime membership on the Constitutional and Security Councils, allow him “to address the people of Kazakhstan at any time,” and stipulate that all “initiatives on the country’s development” must be coordinated through him.
The Government of Kazakhstan is the highest executive power authority, which heads the system of executive organs and is in charge of their activity. The head of the Government is the Prime Minister, who presents proposals to the country’s President on the composition and structure of the Cabinet of Ministers. The Prime Minister is appointed by the President after consultations with political parties factions represented in the lower house (Majilis) of the Parliament, and having received their consent regarding the proposed nominee.
The highest representative authority in Kazakhstan is the permanent professional bicameral Parliament that performs legislative duties. Kazakhstan has a bi-cameral parliament consisting of Majilis and an indirectly elected 50-member upper chamber (Senate). Following the 2022 constitutional reform, the Majilis became a fully directly elected chamber comprising 98 members elected under a newly introduced mixed proportional and majoritarian electoral system. Two-thirds of the chamber (69 seats) will be elected in a single nationwide electoral district based on a closed-list proportional system with a 5 per cent electoral threshold and 29 members in single-mandate electoral districts under a one-round majoritarian plurality system (first-past-the-post).
Some majoritarian candidates were critical of the geographical size of their electoral districts, which, in their view, potentially limits access to voters. The Constitution stipulates an imperative mandate: those who leave or are excluded from their party or whose party ceases its activity lose their mandate. The 2022 constitutional amendments also introduced the possibility of recalling a member of the Majilis elected in a single-mandate electoral district. As a consequence of the constitutional changes, electoral constituencies for the 29 newly created singlemandate electoral districts were delineated by the Central Election Commission (CEC) in December 2022. The number of voters per electoral district varies significantly; the CEC explained the variations by the differences in the density of the population as well as historical reasons, such as different sizes of regions (oblasts), that would make it more difficult, for example, to merge the smallest district with another one.
Before the 2022 constitutional reform, the upper house of Parliament – the Senate, consisted of deputies, which included two representatives from the country’s each region, republican-status cities, and the capital of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Fifteen Senate deputies are appointed by the President, because of the necessity for the government to guarantee the representation of the national, cultural and other societal interests in the Senate. The lower house of Parliament is Majilis, which is made up of 107 deputies, 98 of which are chosen via party list from the ranks of the parties that prevail in the elections. The other 9 deputies are appointed to the lower house by the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, which has status as a constitutional body. The term of the office of the Senate deputies is six years, while the term of office for the deputies of Majilis is five years.
Although the 2007 constitutional amendments increased legislative authority in some spheres, the constitution continues to concentrate power in the presidency. The president appoints and dismisses most high-level government officials, including the prime minister, the cabinet, the prosecutor general, the KNB chief, supreme court and lower-level judges, regional governors, and the chairman and two members of the Central Election Commission (CEC), which oversees presidential and parliamentary elections. The Mazhilis must confirm the president’s choice of prime minister, and the senate must confirm the president’s choice of prosecutor general, chief of the KNB, supreme court judges, and the head of the national bank. The parliament has never failed to confirm a presidential nomination. Modifying or amending the constitution effectively requires the president’s consent. The 2007 constitutional amendments exempt President Nazarbayev from the two-term presidential term limit, and an amendment passed during the year gives him protection from prosecution.
As regards the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, the constitutional status of this organization resulted from the important part played by the Assembly to ensure domestic stability. Representatives of more than 120 ethnic groups live in the country. Under these conditions the Assembly plays an important role in maintaining interethnic harmony and sustainable development of interethnic relations in the country.
The highest authority in the country representing the judicial branch of power is the Supreme Court. This state power authority carries out oversight of local and other courts within the limits of the statutory procedural provisions, and provides clarification of court procedures.
The law does not provide for an independent judiciary. The executive branch sharply limited judicial independence. Prosecutors enjoyed a quasi-judicial role and have the authority to suspend court decisions. In 2005, after extended debate, Kazakhstan adopted the "continental model" for its jury system. Jurors will determine guilt or innocence together with the participation of the judge, rather than separately as in the Anglo-American system. Kazakhstan is divided into 14 oblasts and the two municipal districts of Almaty and Astana. Each is headed by an akim (provincial governor) appointed by the president. Municipal akims are appointed by oblast akims. The Government of Kazakhstan transferred its capital from Almaty to Astana on June 10, 1998.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced in early 2017 that after serving the country so well for 21 years, the Constitution needed to be revised to serve Kazakhstan well for many years to come. Two of the most commonly discussed changes concern the delegation of power to local authorities and a strengthening of the Parliament. These measures are important because decentralisation and a stronger Parliament can improve the representativeness, responsiveness and accountability of the Kazakh political system – thus improving the quality of Kazakh democracy and securing its long-term sustainability.
Although the 2017 constitutional amendments increased legislative and executive branch authority in some spheres, the constitution continues to concentrate power in the presidency itself. The president appoints and dismisses most high-level government officials, including the prime minister, cabinet, prosecutor general, the KNB chief, Supreme Court and lower-level judges, and regional governors. The Mazhilis must confirm the president’s choice of prime minister, and the Senate must confirm the president’s choices of prosecutor general, the KNB chief, Supreme Court judges, and National Bank head. Parliament has never failed to confirm a presidential nomination. Modifying or amending the constitution effectively requires the president’s consent. Constitutional amendments exempt the president from the two-term presidential term limit and protect him from prosecution.
The law on the first president--the “Leader of the Nation” law--established President Nazarbayev as chair of the Kazakhstan People’s Assembly and of the Security Council for life, granted him lifetime membership on the Constitutional Council, allows him “to address the people of Kazakhstan at any time,” and stipulates that all “initiatives on the country’s development” must be coordinated through him.
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