President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan could remain in office for the rest of his life as a result of a package of constitutional amendments approved Friday by Parliament.
The measures, which need Nazarbayev's signature to take effect, would remove any limit on the number of terms he can serve.
Under Kazakhstan's current constitution, Nazarbayev, who has exercised authoritarian rule over the oil-rich Central Asian country since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, would be required to step down in 2012.
Critics charged that the vote was tantamount to making Nazarbayev, 66, president for life, whereas supporters said it was recognition of the key role he has played in building the country of 15 million.
"It is a huge step back for the nation," Aidos Sarimov, a political analyst at the Altynbek Sarsenbayev Foundation, an opposition-linked think tank in Almaty, said by telephone.
Yermek Zhumabayev, chairman of a commission that drafted the package, said the elimination of term limits for Nazarbayev was approved in recognition of "the historic role the first president has played in the establishment of our state, as one of the founders of our new independent Kazakhstan."
Under terms of the package, Nazarbayev would be an exception, with future presidents limited to two five-year terms.
The action Friday involved changes to amendments submitted to Parliament by Nazarbayev on Wednesday, which had been promoted as measures to make the country's political system more democratic. Kazakhstan has never had an election that outside observers have judged to be free and fair.
The original set of amendments shifted some presidential powers to Parliament and reduced future presidential terms to five years from the current seven, but said nothing about changes to allow Nazarbayev to run for office indefinitely.
Under the changes approved Friday, the president would need to seek Parliament's endorsement for his choice of a prime minister. The package also increased the number of members in Parliament and provided for more seats in the lower house to be filled according to the proportion of votes won by parties. Opposition leaders say that would make it more difficult for independent lawmakers to win seats.
It was not clear that the package as a whole marked any real shift of power toward Parliament, as backers asserted.
"From now on, the president will be able to dissolve Parliament any time he wants," Sarimov said. "According to the new amendments, the president also will be able to disband local councils, which is totally undemocratic. If presidential powers were expanded on 15 points, parliamentary powers were uplifted by only five, which resulted in a further imbalance of power in Kazakhstan in favor of the president."
The country has seen strong economic development under Nazarbayev, fueled by growth of the oil and gas industry. The gross domestic product jumped 10.6% last year and 9.4% in 2005. Though criticized for keeping tight controls on media and the opposition, Nazarbayev also enjoys considerable respect.
There has been much speculation that Nazarbayev might be succeeded by his politically active daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, or another member of his family. If Friday's parliamentary action means that he does intend to hang on to power, his relatives could be among those most disappointed.
"President Nazarbayev gave a very clear signal to the political forces in the country and first of all to members of his own family to stop speculating about succession options and planning how to get the future presidency," said Sarimov of the Altynbek Sarsenbayev Foundation, named after a prominent opposition leader who was kidnapped and killed last year.
Sen. Kuanysh Sultanov, speaking in a telephone interview from Astana, the capital, praised Parliament's action as good for the country.
"The contribution and importance of our first president is so immense that we decided to introduce this amendment to give our president a chance to continue his political and economic reforms," Sultanov said. "There is no chance whatsoever that he may abuse this power, given the wise way he is running the country.... Our country needs a strong and wise leader now, and no one can do the job better than Nazarbayev."
The senator also disputed the charge that Parliament's action amounted to making Nazarbayev a lifetime president.
" 'Presidency for life' is an incorrect term here," Sultanov said. "He can run for the presidency for more than two terms, but no one obligates him to do it. It is absolutely up to him."
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.