Succession in power is the Achilles heel of non-monarchic authoritarian regimes. Since their leaders are not elected through open electoral competition, the incumbent will most probably either die in office or be removed violently. Hence, authoritarian leaders must juggle coping with potential competitors, coopting them into their power pyramid or containing them otherwise, while selecting and preparing an heir.
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev has so far been extremely successful in securing his hold on power. The only remaining president in post-Soviet Eurasia who came to power during the old communist days, he is now the seventh in a global list of non-royal long-term leaders alive. Appointed by Gorbachev to the position of the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Kazakh Socialist Soviet Republic in June 1989, he has been popularly elected and re-elected since December 1991 for five times. Last time this happened, in April 2015, official sources reported that nearly 93 of every 100 voting-age citizens in the country had cast a ballot for him at the polls. However manipulated these figures may be, domestic and international observers all concur that most people indeed see no alternative to the almost 78-year-old “First President-Leader of the Nation.”
Some of the more competitive regimes in the post-Soviet region, such as Georgia (“Rose Revolution” 2003) and Ukraine (“Orange Revolution” 2004), have been hit hard by the inability of “lame duck”-presidents to pave the way for successors enjoying elite consensus and mass support. By contrast, the two most repressive regimes, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, survived the unexpected death of their former leaders in 2006 and 2016, respectively, without the breakdown, clan wars and chaos some pundits had feared. Instead, new presidents Berdymukhammedov and Mirziyoyev, formerly having only been persons of trust but not designated successors to their deceased predecessors, both managed to renegotiate the commitment of influential elite networks. During the first one or two years, they consolidated power by removing potential rivals and winning elections by the same margins as their precursors.
On the one hand, Kazakhstan is in a similar situation as were these two countries when succession was looming. Nazarbayev sits firmly in power. The political regime is centered on him. Speculation about succession has been rampant for years, but there is no obvious heir, even if rumors circulate about his daughter Dariga or his son-in-law Timur Kulibayev and others. On the other hand, there are significant differences compared to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, especially regarding the structure of the elites. Thanks to a more developed economy, in Kazakhstan there are more numerous groups of vested interests having much to win or to lose when policies or politicians change.
Nazarbayev is a master at balancing these elite networks. One of his visible reactions to their hidden competition is a policy of frequent personnel rotation. While some members of the political elite fall out of the president’s favor, most are simply appointed to other positions just to return after a couple of years being awarded for loyalty and devotion. Observers, stressing the high risk of political instability due to intra-elite quarrels, see these personnel reshufflings as a means to create the conditions for a smooth power succession within the extended Nazarbayev family.
The President himself has addressed the question on several occasions. In 2013, during an interview for a national TV channel, he declared that “one who initiates reforms always faces risks,” and “therefore (…) always thinks of what might follow later on.” He suggested creating “a sustainable system” that would not be shaken by a new leader’s arrival, citing Singapore and Malaysia as role models. In a 2016 interview, he revealed plans to retire by 2020 without handing over power to his children.
In fact, in addition to a “cadre policy” that is hard to decipher from the outside, Nazarbayev also tinkers with the institutional foundations of his regime. He seems to carry out piecemeal constitutional reforms aiming at a smooth transition of power that ensures regime continuity.
During the first two decades of post-communist Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev invested in the postponing of any succession problem to the farthest possible future. Initially, he had faced a restriction to two five-year consecutive terms in office as most of his post-Soviet fellows did. However, in 1995, he orchestrated a referendum, which substituted re-election with an ad hoc prolongation of his tenure. Gradually, Nazarbayev’s enduring overstay in power became institutionalized. In 2000, the Constitutional Court ruled that his 1999 re-election effectively started his presidency anew, since the first post-Soviet Constitution, adopted in 1993, had been replaced in 1995. Finally, a 2007 Constitutional Law exempted the First President-Leader of the Nation from any term constraints at all, paying tribute to his merit for Kazakhstani state- and nation-building. A 2011 constitutional reform added the competency to declare preterm elections to the office at will. As a result, Nazarbayev became entitled to run for the presidency as long as he wishes to, but also to retire at any convenient point in time.
Recently, signs have multiplied that the “operation successor” is about to be set in motion. First, constitutional amendments in 2017 redistributed some powers to the Majilis, the Kazakhstani parliament, and strengthened the role of political parties, at least on paper. Still, even if pitched as an important measure to further democracy, these amendments did not abolish presidential supremacy, the cornerstone of the political system. However, the reform might narrow the formal scope of action for a future office-holder of less political weight than Nazarbayev. For example, the president became obliged to interact with the parliamentary parties when the cabinet is to be formed or the assembly to be dissolved. In the same vein, the upgrading of the Majilis as well as that of political parties could be seen as an attempt to enhance the attractiveness of these arenas for elite cooptation. Possibly, it allows for some degree of interest group pluralism, thereby channeling competition over power on the eve of and during transition.
Second, in June 2017, amendments to the Law on Elections were introduced. Most notably, they demand that any would-be candidate to the presidency prove having no less than five years of work experience in public service or as an elected politician. Apparently, this rules out any regime outsiders from the competition, if there will be any at all.
The third dimension of law-making addresses Nazarbayev’s position after a possible retirement. In addition to lifelong legal immunity, the 2010 revision of the Constitutional law on the Presidency assigned the First President-Leader of the Nation the eternal right to submit “initiatives on major issues of state construction, domestic and foreign policy and national security” for mandatory review by the power branches. Also, he got entitled to personally address parliament, government and other bodies for “important issues.” Reciprocally, these bodies will be obliged to coordinate their activities “in key areas of domestic and foreign policies” with pensioner Nazarbayev.
The most recent move of “operation successor” is currently under parliamentary consideration. It consists of a draft Law on the National Security Council. Founded by presidential decree in 1991, the Council has been reformed since 2006 as many as seven times without gaining major attention or importance. However, in early 2018, Nazarbayev proposed to transform it from a presidential consultative council into a constitutional body, consisting of the President, the Prime Minister, the Chief of the Presidential Administration, the Speakers of both Chambers of the Parliament, leaders of the law enforcement system and several ministers.
Most importantly, Nazarbayev himself shall be appointed Chairman of the Council. He will be entitled to give instructions to all members of the body, including the elected president-to-come. Thus, the First President will have the “final say” on all major political issues, no matter who serves under his guidance. Consequently, Nazarbayev’s future position has already been compared with that of Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei.
Obviously, the new Law is meant to be an important building block within the imagined Kazakhstani “sustainable system.” It will create an institutional tool for implementing the somewhat lofty prerogatives of the First President enshrined in the 2010 Law on the Presidency. If that plan works out, Nazarbayev could retire from his post as president in the not-so-far future, proclaim early elections, back a candidate for succession, and then groom him or her until the end of his days. With his death, Kazakhstan would return to “normal” presidentialism, since Nazarbayev’s super-presidency is a constitutional position tailored exclusively to him.
If adopted and executed, this institutional reform may perhaps secure Nazarbayev’s lifelong dominance over politics in Kazakhstan and help to introduce a successor who will learn to run the country under the First President’s supervision. However, it is questionable whether the new Council can effectively secure the survival of the regime: should a crisis emerge, Nazarbayev could be tempted to turn the Council into a kind of junta if he is still strong and popular enough by then. Even if this were not to happen, the new incumbent could face a “real” succession crisis and “clan war” the moment the First President will eventually be gone for good.
Thus, the new design of the Council would probably help to solve Nazarbayev’s individual problem, i.e., how to retire without giving up power. It might also allow gaining time to accustom the elites to a new leader. However, whether this will guarantee regime continuity depends on whether the new president can generate credibility under the restricted conditions of “supervised learning,” being simultaneously forced to remain completely loyal to Nazarbayev while striving for building a genuine power base.