ASTANA (Reuters) – Kazakhstan’s new president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev handed the key post of senate speaker on Wednesday to a daughter of his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, who unexpectedly resigned a day earlier after three decades in power.
Nazarbayev, 78, stepped down late on Tuesday in what appeared to be the first step in a choreographed political transition that will see him retain considerable sway over the Central Asian nation of 18 million people.
His daughter Dariga’s promotion — which was ex-speaker Tokayev’s first major move after being inaugurated — raises her profile as a potential successor. Under Kazakhstan’s constitution, the senate speaker assumes presidential powers in the event of the president’s resignation or death.
Tokayev, a 65-year-old career diplomat fluent in Russian, English and Chinese, will serve for the rest of the presidential term ending in April 2020. He promised on Wednesday to continue Nazarbayev’s policies.
“(Nazarbayev’s) opinion will have special, one might say priority, importance in developing and making strategic decisions,” Tokayev said in an inauguration speech, adding that the Kazakh capital, Astana, must be renamed Nursultan.
It remains unclear whether the Moscow-educated former prime minister will run for a full term as president next year. Nazarbayev praised him on Tuesday as “a man who can be trusted to lead Kazakhstan”.
Nazarbayev, who has no obvious long-term successor, had run the vast oil and gas-rich country since 1989 when it was a Soviet republic, routinely winning elections with more than 90 percent of the vote.
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But country-watchers have considered his eldest daughter Dariga a succession candidate since she founded her own party in the 2000s — which later merged with Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan.
Nazarbayeva, a 55-year-old mother of three, has in the past led Kazakhstan’s main television station and served as a deputy prime minister, while also devoting time to her passion for opera — which she has performed publicly.
She made no mention of the upcoming elections in her brief acceptance speech on Wednesday.
Another extended family member, Nazarbayev’s nephew Samat Abish, is also regarded as a candidate after his meteoric rise through the ranks of state security, where he has held the No.2 post since 2015. Abish, however, keeps a low public profile.
The head of state security, Karim Masimov, although not a family member, has also become very close to Nazarbayev, to whom he frequently referred as “my president”, having served as his chief of staff and twice as prime minister. The current PM, Askar Mamin, was Masimov’s classmate in the 1970s.
Some analysts believe there will be collective succession, a troika- or politburo-style arrangement, after Kazakhstan amended its constitution in 2017 to reduce presidential powers in favor of lawmakers and the cabinet.
“What we expect to see in coming years and decades is a gradual transformation towards a system that is less reliant on one strong figurehead,” said Charles Robertson, global chief economist at Renaissance Capital.
But there are doubts whether such a structure would survive for a long time, given the recent examples of neighboring Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan where new leaders moved quickly to eliminate other key players.
In any case, major concerns for investors will be uncertainty and a shift from long-term structural reforms towards populist policies, which began last year when the government unexpectedly froze utilities tariffs, putting companies’ long-term investment plans at risk.
Last month, Nazarbayev ordered the cabinet to tap the country’s rainy-day fund for $3.6 billion in order to boost public sector salaries and social aid payouts and develop housing and infrastructure.
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