A referendum effort in Kazakhstan aimed at extending President Nursultan Nazarbayev's term of office to 2020 has collected more than 2.5 million signatures, an organizer said Wednesday, Xinhua reported.
"We initially planned to collect over 2 million signatures by Jan. 11, but we have already passed that point. However, since we have set the dateline, we will keep working and collecting signatures until Jan. 11," said Erlan Sydykov, head of a group formed for the referendum promotion.
According to Kazakh law, organizers must collect at least 200,000 signatures of citizens equally representing all regions of the country to qualify a referendum.
On Dec. 23, 850 people from 16 regions of Kazakhstan, including members of parliament, regional representatives, and societ leaders, met in Ust-Kamenogorsk, a city in eastern Kazakhstan to discuss the referendum proposal.
Sydykov's group was formed then and obtained its formal registeration at Kazakhstan's Central Election Commission on Dec. 27.
However, the U.S. embassy in Kazakhstan issued a statement Tuesday, criticizing the move as a "setback for democracy."
"We believe a national referendum that would replace the presidential elections guaranteed by Kazakhstan's constitution would be a setback for democracy in Kazakhstan," the statement said.
"Kazakhstan reaffirmed its commitment to move forward on democracy when hosting the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Astana on December 1 to 2," the statement said.
Nazarbayev, 70, has held power in the oil-rich former Soviet state since 1989.
Kazakhstan was expected to hold presidential elections in 2012, with another election in 2017. In 2020, Nazarbayev will be 80 and if he is still in power, he will have ruled the country for more than three decades.