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Exit polls indicate that more than 70% of Kazakh voters who took part in the June 5 constitutional referendum favored the proposed changes.

The Institute for Comprehensive Social Research said its poll showed the amendments were approved by 76.7% of voters, while the Kogamdyk piki research institute said that according to its exit poll, 74.8% were in favor.

The Eurasian Monitoring Center for Analytical Research reported that 76.7% voted in favor of the amendments.

Officials said after polls closed across the country, turnout was 68%. The figure does not take into account the votes cast by Kazakhs abroad.

To pass, more than 50% of voters in at least 12 of the country’s 17 regions must vote in favor of the amendments.

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

The referendum on some 56 proposed changes to the constitution came after the country was rocked by deadly unrest in January that ended the long-held grip on power of Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Nazarbaev chose Toqaev to succeed him after he resigned in 2019. The referendum was seen as an attempt by Toqaev, 69, to formalize Nazarbaev’s “retirement” and secure 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 without commenting to reporters.

Opponents of the government had asked Toqaev to postpone the referendum, saying people had not had enough time to study the proposals. Others said the vote should be canceled altogether.

WATCH: Opposition activists chanted slogans at a polling station in Almaty. Supporters of the unregistered opposition Democratic Party demonstrated by voting, calling for the release of detained party leader Zhanbolat Mamai.

Almaty police arrested Kazakh activist Darkhan Sharipov, who protested the referendum, which he said would only lead to “partial, not political, reforms”.

In some towns and districts in the Qaraghandy region, where an RFE/RL reporter visited polling stations and spoke to people on the streets, not all residents understood exactly why they were voting and what specifically would change in the constitution.

In Prishakhtinsk, a suburb of Qaraghandy, some voters asked members of the commission to inform them of the amendments.

Ksenia Sinitsyna, secretary of polling station 120, told RFE/RL that voters received information, including in printed form, and their questions were answered. Some voters took the handouts home to study and then returned to vote, Sinitsyna said.

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

This measure is seen as an attempt to prevent the incredible 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 retain the right to appoint the prime minister, cabinet members, attorney general, security chief, heads of the National Bank and Central Election Commission as well as several other key posts.

The chief executive would also retain the power to appoint provincial governors and mayors of cities, including the capital, despite widespread calls from public campaigners 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 organized.

The one who stands to lose the most if the referendum is approved is Nazarbaev, who ruled Kazakhstan from 1990 to 2019 and wielded significant political influence as a former president until the bloody nationwide unrest in January that left at least 238 dead.

The revised constitution removes all references to Nazarbaev as ‘elbasy’ (head 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 politics and wealth of the country.
Nazarbaev and his relatives would also lose their lifetime immunity from prosecution if the referendum is approved.

The constitutional revision would reduce the number of 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 would also vote to confirm nominations for attorney general, security chief and other key positions submitted by the president. .

Many analysts saw the referendum as an attempt by Toqaev to prepare for the next presidential election, scheduled for 2024.

Some observers reported irregularities, according to RFE/RL. In the western region, an observer reported that ballots were in the ballot box before voting began, and RFE/RL reporters were not allowed to report from some polling stations.

Kazakhstan was ranked “not freeby the American NGO Freedom House, which said that its “parliamentary and presidential elections are neither free nor fair, and that the main parties show continued loyalty to the government”.

Martin E. Berry