* Referendum could by held by March
* Would give veteran leader third decade in power
By Dmitry Solovyov
ALMATY, Dec 29 (Reuters) - Kazakhstan’s parliament called on Wednesday for a referendum that would extend President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s 20-year rule for a third decade to 2020.
The 70-year-old leader must approve the call to hold the referendum, which would allow him to avoid an election that would have been due in 2012.
Supporters and opponents expect the referendum could be held as soon as March, and Nazarbayev, who has tightly controlled the Central Asian state since it was part of the Soviet Union, will have little difficulty securing victory.
“Just like our entire nation, we, parliamentarians, associate the successful future of our country only with you and your name,” the deputies of the lower Mazhilis house said in an appeal to Nazarbayev which was published by local media.
“We appeal to you, the first president, the Leader of the Nation, the founder and creator of our independent state who made an inestimable contribution to the consolidation of Kazakhstan, with an initiative to call a republican referendum.”
Nazarbayev’s administration issued no immediate comment. There are no opposition deputies in the legislature, but opposition figures have denounced the referendum as a bid to avoid a competitive election.
Under Kazakh law, a referendum can be proposed either by parliament or by the public through petitions which require 200,000 signatures.
A “people’s initiative” began collecting signatures on Monday to hold a referendum extending Nazarbayev’s rule and has already gathered 150,000, state television reported.
In 1995, Nazarbayev called and easily won a referendum on extending his term to 2000 from 1996.
A former steelworker who rose to the position of a member of the Soviet Communist Party politburo, Nazarbayev announced in September that he would seek a new term.
Known as “Papa” to Kazakhs, he has overseen more than $150 billion in foreign investment, mainly in oil, gas and metals. Kazakhstan has the world’s largest uranium reserves and is home to its biggest oil discovery in 40 years. (Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Peter Graff)