In Almaty and the capital Nur-Sultan, polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (01 a.m. GMT) and were due to close at 8 p.m. (2 p.m. GMT). In the west of the country, the vote will end an hour later, at 3:00 p.m. GMT.
The largest former Soviet republic in Central Asia, rich in minerals and hydrocarbons, was rocked in January by violence that left more than 230 dead.
These disturbances, the deadliest since the country’s independence in 1991, were preceded by peaceful protests against rising fuel prices, then degenerated into clashes between law enforcement and civilians.
Before the riots, current Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, 69, was widely seen as the henchman of Mr Nazarbayev, 81, who resigned in 2019, retaining great influence in the shadows.
But the troubles of January marked a turning point, President Tokayev seeming to have taken advantage of the crisis to curb the influence of his predecessor and oust some of those close to him.
The constitutional referendum being held on Sunday is to modify about a third of the articles of Kazakh fundamental law and, in particular, to strip Mr. Nazarbayev of the title of “Elbasy” — “Head of the nation” — a status that gives him considerable authority.
An amendment provides that the relatives of the leaders cannot occupy major governmental functions, a measure obviously intended for the family of Nazarbayev.
According to Mr. Tokayev, the reform aims to remove the current “super-presidential” regime, long marked by the cult of the personality of Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The ‘yes’ vote is likely to win, as no ‘no’ campaign has taken place in an authoritarian state known for repressing critical voices.
In Almaty, the country’s largest city, small queues formed outside the polling stations, AFP noted.
Ayan, an 18-year-old student who voted for the first time in his life, is happy that Mr Nazarbayev’s privileged status is being removed.
The ex-president “has a place in our history books, but all citizens should be equal before the Constitution,” he said.
In Nur-Sultan, Bolat, a 46-year-old businessman, explains that he will not vote, “because according to him this referendum “is a formality aimed at consolidating the position of the current power”.
– Power struggle –
The precise causes of the January riots remain mysterious. The violence had devastated the center of Almaty, but spared Nur-Sultan, the former Astana, renamed in 2018 in honor of Mr. Nazarbayev.
President Tokayev has accused “terrorists” of wanting to take power.
The arrest, on January 8, of a close friend of Mr. Nazarbayev, Karim Massimov, then head of the National Security Council, had however fueled speculation about a power struggle.
After the crisis, Mr. Tokayev also publicly criticized Mr. Nazarbayev, accusing him of having protected the “rich”. A nephew of the former president, Kaïrat Satybaldy, was arrested in March on charges of embezzlement.
Mr. Tokayev, however, also praised the work done by Noursultan Nazarbayev, a former Communist Party official who developed this immense country, covered with steppes, relying on the windfall of hydrocarbons.
MM. Both Nazarbayev and Tokayev advocate close ties with neighboring Russia, while maintaining partnerships with the West and China.
During the riots, Tokayev called for help from Moscow, which sent troops as part of a military alliance. The Kremlin assures that this intervention had no political counterpart.
Since January, Nursultan Nazarbayev has hardly made a public appearance. But he gave an interview on Monday where he called for a vote in favor of the reform.