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[From the Scene] Kazakhs vote for constitutional reform, hopes high for ‘New Kazakhstan’

Constitutional reforms seen as way forward for country’s development, democratization

Kazakh nationals vote Sunday in a nationwide referendum on constitution reforms. (Sanjay Kumar/The Korea Herald)
Kazakh nationals vote Sunday in a nationwide referendum on constitution reforms. (Sanjay Kumar/The Korea Herald)
By Sanjay Kumar
Korea Herald correspondent

NUR-SULTAN, Kazakhstan — Kazakh citizens on Sunday gave overwhelming support to proposed constitutional democratic reforms, with nearly 80 percent voting for change in the referendum.

The Central Election Committee said Monday that 77.18 percent of ballots cast were in favor of the amendments aimed at shifting from former strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev’s “super-presidential” rule to a presidential republic, decentralization of powers and changing the role and status of the parliament. Some 18 percent opposed it.

More than 11.7 million Kazakh citizens in the Central Asian nation registered to vote in the referendum at more than 10,000 polling stations across the country, with the voter turnout at 68 percent, official data showed.

One voter at a polling station in the Kazhymukan village outside Nur-Sultan told The Korea Herald he voted because he “believed in the idea of a future Kazakhstan.”

“Constitutional amendment will change our future,” he said, requesting anonymity.

Baurzhan Djangunakov who works as a deputy of the Nur-Sultan Maslikhat, a local representative body, said the referendum was an opportunity to vote for a “New Kazakhstan.”
Baurzhan Djangunakov(fourth from left), a deputy of the local representative Mashlikhat body in Nur-Sultan, speaks with The Korea Herald at Kazakhstan’s National Museum polling station in the capital city. (Smatayev Abylay/Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry)
Baurzhan Djangunakov(fourth from left), a deputy of the local representative Mashlikhat body in Nur-Sultan, speaks with The Korea Herald at Kazakhstan’s National Museum polling station in the capital city. (Smatayev Abylay/Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry)
“(The) referendum will contribute to strengthen national agenda for new changes and development,” Djangunakov told The Korea Herald at the National Museum polling station in the capital.

The calls for change came in the wake of anti-government demonstrations sparked by sharp increases in fuel prices. Following the protests, which cost more than 200 lives, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev proposed the referendum and reform package after foiling a coup and removing Nazarbayev from key government positions. Nazarbayev had stepped down in 2019 after three decades of authoritarian rule, but he and his relatives still wielded power until January’s unrest.

Tokayev, in a nationwide address Monday, called the referendum an “important milestone.”

“We have demonstrated that we are united in building a new and fair Kazakhstan,” Tokayev said. “The constitutional amendments will cardinally transform the foundations of our statehood and give new impetus to the development of our society.”

Mukhtar Tileuberdi, the deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, said it signaled a “new phase in the development of our statehood as they clearly aim at strengthening the human rights protection mechanisms and the democratic institutions in Kazakhstan.”

Some of the most significant changes in the reform proposal include a ban on the death penalty and expanding citizen participation in state governance.
Kazakhstan State Secretary Erlan Karin speaks to a group of visiting foreign journalists at the Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry in Nur-Sultan on Friday. (Sanjay Kumar/The Korea Herald)
Kazakhstan State Secretary Erlan Karin speaks to a group of visiting foreign journalists at the Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry in Nur-Sultan on Friday. (Sanjay Kumar/The Korea Herald)
Kazakhstan’s State Secretary Erlan Karin, addressing foreign journalists at the Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry building earlier on Friday, stressed that unlike previous constitutional amendments passed through parliament, the new amendment needs large-scale changes and affects one-third of the Constitution, or 33 articles.

Asked whether the amendments were initiated in response to the January protests, Karin said the reforms are a logical continuation of the previous packages proposed by the president since 2019, and not just a response to the social unrest.

“The reforms were not just because of protests, it was ongoing. It was based on public demand and needs,” Karin said.

“Formulating new political culture will take time,” he said. “Kazakhstan will remain a constitutional republic.”

On Thursday prior to the voting, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Roman Vassilenko said the reform would set a new stage in history for the country, calling it a “Second Republic.”

Kazakhstan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko conducts a briefing session to a group of visiting foreign journalists at the Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry in Nur-Sultan on Friday. (Sanjay Kumar/The Korea Herald).
Kazakhstan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko conducts a briefing session to a group of visiting foreign journalists at the Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry in Nur-Sultan on Friday. (Sanjay Kumar/The Korea Herald).
The First Republic, formed after becoming independent in 1991, did not have time to be structurally transformed and adjusted to the modern realities and challenges of time, he said.

Stagnation began to appear, particularly in the political sphere, which was no longer able to ensure social consensus, he added.

Applauding President Tokayev’s strategy of liberalizing Kazakhstan, Vassilenko emphasized that the Second Republic marks the departure from the super-presidential system to the establishment of a presidential republic with a strong parliament.

“New Kazakhstan means fair Kazakhstan,” said Vassilenko.

Discussing the reform package, Kazakhstan Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Aigul Kuspan emphasized the need of prosperity and rights of the Kazakhstan nationals. 

Kazakhstan Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Aigul Kuspan discusses amendments with a group of foreign journalists in Nur-Sultan on Friday. (Sanjay Kumar/The Korea Herald)
Kazakhstan Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Aigul Kuspan discusses amendments with a group of foreign journalists in Nur-Sultan on Friday. (Sanjay Kumar/The Korea Herald)
“All resources of Kazakhstan belong to Kazakh people,” she said Thursday, adding that the government should be accountable to the people.

When asked about President Tokayev’s political party affiliation, Kuspan said he remained independent and decided not to be member of any political party.

Briefing a group of visiting foreign journalists before the vote, Central Election Commission Deputy Chairman Konstantin Petrov said 11,000 Kazakhstan citizens in 52 countries will be eligible to vote at diplomatic missions. Meanwhile, the Kazakhstan Embassy in Seoul said that 131 Kazakhstan nationals in Korea voted at the embassy.

Kazazkhstan Central Election Commission Deputy Chairman Konstantin Petrov gives a briefing to a group of visiting foreign journalists in Nur-Sultan on Friday. (Sanjay Kumar/The Korea Herald).
Kazazkhstan Central Election Commission Deputy Chairman Konstantin Petrov gives a briefing to a group of visiting foreign journalists in Nur-Sultan on Friday. (Sanjay Kumar/The Korea Herald).
“The total turnout for the referendum was 86 percent and we sent results of the votes directly to Kazakhstan headquarters,” an embassy official told The Korea Herald on Saturday.

A Korea Herald correspondent speaks to Kazakh nationals outside a polling station in Nur-Sultan on Sunday. (Smatayev Abylay/Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry)
A Korea Herald correspondent speaks to Kazakh nationals outside a polling station in Nur-Sultan on Sunday. (Smatayev Abylay/Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry)
The enthusiasm for the referendum could also be found in rural areas, such as in Talapker village near the capital where residents were enjoying folk song performances near the polling station in a festive mood.

“We live and do things together in the village and we are voting together for New Kazakhstan,” said one voter outside the Talapker polling station.

Another voter in the Tselinograd district of the Akmola region in the north, who is a member of the ruling Amanat political party, said, “The referendum will change the fate of Kazakhstan and we, all the citizens are ready to see it.”

By Sanjay Kumar (sanjaykumar@heraldcorp.com)
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