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Turkmenistan: Could Presidential Vote Open New Chapter?

  • Bruce Pannier --> A campaign event near the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, in February (OSCE) February 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- It is a country that has been called the "hermit kingdom" and the "North Korea of Central Asia." But on February 11, Turkmenistan holds its first-ever presidential election with more than one choice on the ballot.

While the outcome is all but assured, foreigners are scrutinizing the election process for clues to Turkmenistan's future course.

About half of Turkmenistan's 5 million people are eligible to vote in this election. Many will be voting for a president for the first time in their lives.

The country has no history of participatory democracy, notwithstanding an implausibly high record of official voter support for its leadership.

The last presidential election was held in June 1992, when the late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov ran unopposed and received 99.5 percent of the vote.

The most recent elections in Turkmenistan were the 2004 parliamentary elections. Three of four eligible voters cast ballots in that election, according to official figures. Not surprisingly, an overwhelming majority of the legislature's 50 seats went to the country's only registered political party -- the renamed Communist Party, now called the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan.

'Six Of One...'

Voters this time are being asked to choose from among six candidates who until Niyazov's death in December were relatively unknown even inside Turkmenistan.

Anna Sunder Plassman, a researcher on Georgia and Turkmenistan for the London-based rights organization Amnesty International, says it is regrettable that only candidates approved by the regime can compete in this presidential campaign.

"No opposition parties were able or are able to participate in the elections," Plassman says.

The Turkmen government is hopeful of a high turnout. Election authorities are trying to entice voters -- new and old -- to come to the polling stations. Turkmen state television has been broadcasting a sweetener for first-time voters and the elderly.

"Anyone coming to vote for the first time, young people or the elderly -- will receive a gift," goes the announcement.

The Official Favorite

The favorite to win is acting President and former Health Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

He is competing against a provincial deputy governor (First Deputy Governor of Dashoguz Province Amanyaz Atajykov), a gas and minerals deputy minister (Deputy Minister of the Gas Industry and Mineral Resources Ishanguly Nuryev), a provincial leader (Mukhammetnazar Gurbanov, who is head of the Karabekaul district, in Lebap Province), and two incumbent mayors from outside the capital (Abadan Mayor Orazmyrad Garajaev and Turkmenbashi City Mayor Ashyrniyaz Pomanov).

Satellite dishes in Ashgabat (OSCE file photo)

Although Berdymukhammedov publicly called for all candidates to be granted equal media time and equal access to voters, the acting president has received the lion's share of media attention.

More astonishingly, the head of the country's Central Election Commission has vowed publicly to work to see that Berdymukhammedov is elected president.

What The Future Holds

Many democratic governments and international rights organizations have urged Turkmen authorities to seize this presidential election as an opportunity to change the country's image by pursuing more liberal, democratic policies than in the past.

Candidates have issued some interesting promises -- including greater public access to the Internet, private land ownership, and a lifting of restrictions on travel abroad.

This election could provide an early indication of whether Turkmen authorities intend to ease controls in one of the most rigorously controlled societies in the world. But few outsiders will be on hand to scrutinize the process.

No foreign observers are monitoring Sunday's election, not even CIS observers.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has deployed an election-support team, which that group says will "follow the election process" and -- in the OSCE's words -- "familiarize themselves with election-related issues." But the OSCE noted that "the team is [neither] observing nor monitoring the election," , citing "time constraints," and it won't issue a public report.

Turkmen election authorities are expected to issue preliminary election results on February 12.

(RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)

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