Almaty (Agencies): Kazakhstan's veteran leader has announced that presidential election will be held on April 3, about 20 months before his current term in office is due to end, said a decree published in the official Kazakhstanskaya Pravda on Friday.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev, previously a member of the Soviet Communist Party Politburo, pre-empted any unwelcome parallels with authoritarian leaders in the Arab world on Monday, when he called an early presidential election and rejected a proposed referendum designed to allow him to rule unopposed for another decade.

The United States, which warned in December that skipping elections through a referendum would be a "setback for democracy," promptly backed Nazarbayev's decision to hold an early election.

Nazarbayev, known as "Papa" to many Kazakhs, has ruled Kazakhstan for two decades and is almost certain to gain victory in the election he called after rejecting a plan to let him rule Central Asia's largest economy unopposed until 2020.

Many foreign investors rate the absence of a clear succession plan as the single biggest threat to political stability in the oil-rich country.

Nazarbayev, a former steelworker who has put in place bold market reforms, brooks no dissent, and the vast country of 16 million has no organised opposition movement, nor the political motivation to foment Egypt-style street protests.

The OSCE, Europe's main security and rights body, welcomed Nazarbayev's plan to hold a snap election, saying that Kazakhstan had vowed to hold "democratic elections at reasonable intervals" at a latest OSCE meet in Astana.

By rejecting the "people's referendum initiative," Nazarbayev showed his resolve to secure firm Western support and extend diplomatic gains achieved last year when Kazakhstan became the first former Soviet country to chair the OSCE.