Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on Tuesday called a snap election for June as the Central Asian nation seeks a new leader following the shock resignation of its longtime ruler. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the only leader an independent Kazakhstan had ever known, announced suddenly he was stepping down last month after nearly three decades in office.
Nazarbayev, who retained significant powers following his resignation, named Tokayev to replace him ahead of elections that had been planned for next year. On Tuesday, Tokayev said the presidential election would be held on June 9 instead.
In a televised address to the nation, Tokayev said he had consulted with Nazarbayev -- known as "Elbasy" or "Leader of the Nation" in Kazakh -- and other top officials before making the decision. "We must continue to work on the implementation of the strategy of Elbasy," Tokayev said.
"This can be done only by the direct expression of the will of the people... As the acting head of state, I guarantee that the elections will be held honestly, openly and fairly." Tokayev did not immediately say whether he would run and speculation is rife in Kazakhstan about who might take Nazarbayev's place. Tokayev is seen as a potential frontrunner, as is Nazarbayev's daughter Dariga, who replaced Tokayev as leader of the Senate when he assumed the presidency. She was among those he said he had consulted before calling the vote.
The potential elevation of Dariga has raised concerns that Nazarbayev is looking to put in place a dynastic succession. Nazarbayev, 78, has the constitutional status of "Leader of the Nation" as well as chairmanship of the ruling Nur Otan party and a lifetime position as chief of the security council.
He ruled Kazakhstan since before it gained independence with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Nazarbayev was credited with transforming the country into an energy powerhouse with growing diplomatic clout, but also accused of clamping down on the opposition and tolerating little dissent.
Nazarbayev is known for careful diplomacy that privileges key partners Russia and China while maintaining cordial ties with the West. The capital was quickly renamed from Astana to Nur-Sultan in his honour following his resignation.
Dozens have been arrested while attempting to hold anti-government protests in the country's two largest cities, Nur-Sultan and Almaty, since Tokayev took office. The government faces a challenge to tackle growing discontent over falling living standards after Kazakhstan's economy was hit by the 2014 drop in oil prices and western sanctions against Russia, a key trading partner.
Just last week, Nazarbayev was quoted as saying there remained "much work ahead" for him. Tokayev, a 65-year-old career diplomat had on Monday held a meeting with top officials, in a move widely seen as foreshadowing the snap vote.
(With inputs from agencies.)