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Kazakhstan’s Central Election Commission says voters in a weekend referendum were overwhelmingly in favor of proposed constitutional amendments aimed at decentralizing decision-making and stripping former President Nursultan Nazarbaev of his “national leader” status.

The referendum on some 56 proposed changes to the constitution came after the country was rocked by deadly unrest in January that ended Nazarbaev’s longtime grip on power.

“The referendum can be considered validated,” Commission Chairman Nurlan Abdirov said on June 6, citing preliminary results that 77.18 percent voted in favor of the amendments. He said turnout was 68.06 percent.

In order to be adopted, more than 50 percent of voters in at least 12 of the country’s 17 regions must cast ballots in favor of the amendments.

President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev said the referendum will shift the country from a “super-presidential form of government to a presidential republic with a strong parliament.”

Nazarbaev handpicked Toqaev to be his successor after he resigned in 2019. The referendum was seen as an attempt by Toqaev, 69, to formalize Nazarbaev’s “retirement” and ensure his departure from the political scene.

Nazarbaev, 81, voted in the capital, Nur-Sultan. He was seen in a short video dropping his ballot into the ballot box and leaving the polling station with a wave of his hand, but with no comment to reporters.

Government opponents had called on Toqaev to postpone the referendum, saying people had not been given enough time to study the proposals. Others said the voting should be canceled altogether.

Police in Almaty detained Kazakh activist Darkhan Sharipov, who protested against the referendum, which he said would only achieve “partial reforms, not political ones.”

In some cities and districts in the Qaraghandy region, where an RFE/RL reporter visited polling stations and talked with people in the streets, not all residents understood exactly what they were voting for and what specifically would change in the Constitution.

In Prishakhtinsk, an area of ​​Qaraghandy, some voters asked members of the commission to acquaint them with the amendments. Ksenia Sinitsyna, secretary of polling station 120, told RFE/RL that voters are provided with information, including in printed form, and their questions are answered.

Some voters took the printouts home to study them before returning to vote, Sinitsyna said.

The changes would bar the country’s president from being a member of a political party while holding office. Perhaps even more importantly, relatives of the president would not be allowed to hold any key positions in the public sector.

That measure is seen as an attempt to prevent the depth of nepotism that occurred under Nazarbaev.

The number of Senate members appointed by the president would be reduced from the current 15 to 10.

But the president would maintain the right to appoint the prime minister, the cabinet, the prosecutor-general, the security chief, the heads of the national bank, and the election commission, and other key posts.

The chief executive would also retain the power to appoint provincial governors and the mayors of cities, including the capital, despite widespread calls from public activists for governors and mayors to be elected by voters.

The right to appoint powerful regional governors is seen as an important political tool for the president as governors can be used to swing an election by controlling the voting process in the authoritarian country where international observers say free and fair elections are not held.

The one who stands to lose the most if the referendum is approved is Nazarbaev, who led Kazakhstan from 1990 until 2019 and enjoyed significant political sway as ex-president until the bloody nationwide unrest in January that left at least 238 people dead.

The revised constitution removes all references to Nazarbaev as “elbasy” (leader of the nation), which would cement his fall from grace that began with demands by anti-government protesters to end his family’s grip on the country’s politics and riches.

The changes remove the lifelong immunity for Nazarbaev and his close relatives from prosecution that was guaranteed by the Law on the First President of Kazakhstan. However, they will still enjoy that privilege under the general law on ex-presidents.

The constitutional overhaul would reduce the number or lawmakers in the Mazhilis, or lower house of parliament, to 98 from the current 107 members.

The Senate would also lose its power to make new laws but would vote on bills passed by the Mazhilis and as well as vote to confirm nominations for prosecutor-general, security chief, and other key positions submitted by the president.

Many analysts have seen the referendum as a bid by Toqaev to prepare for the country’s next presidential election, scheduled for 2024.

A CIS observer mission — comprising 144 representatives from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan — said the vote was held “in accordance with the law.”

Some independent observers, however, reported irregularities, according to RFE/RL. In the western region, an observer reported that ballots were in the ballot box before the start of voting, and RFE/RL reporters were barred from reporting from some polling stations.

Some observers reported irregularities, according to RFE/RL. In the western region, an observer reported that ballots were in the ballot box before the start of voting, and RFE/RL reporters were barred from reporting from some polling stations.

Kazakhstan has been rated “not free” by the US-based Freedom House NGO, which has said its “parliamentary and presidential elections are neither free nor fair, and major parties exhibit continued loyalty to the government.”

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