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Turkmenistan: People Prepare To Vote -- But For Whom?

  • Bruce Pannier

Turkmenistan has brought new meaning to the term "secret ballot." Elections for seats in the People's Council and parliament are scheduled for 6 April, but so far no one in Turkmenistan knows who will be running. State-run television, radio, and print media have neglected to inform the electorate who the candidates are, although there are now just over three weeks until election day. RFE/RL looks at this strangely underpublicized election.

Prague, 14 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan is holding elections early next month but unfortunately, it is still not clear what candidates the country's 2.2 million voters will see on the ballots.

The original announcement about the elections to the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council) and Mejlis (parliament) appeared in Turkmen newspapers at the end of December. It now seems that some, but not all, of the seats in both bodies are up for vote on 6 April. But with just three weeks left until the poll, the identity of the candidates remains a mystery.

Turkmen media, which are all state-run, have said very little about the elections since the announcement in late December.

Erika Dailey is the director of the Budapest-based Turkmenistan Project. She said the fact there is so little information about the upcoming election should not come as a surprise to anyone. "There is very little information available about this [election]. There appears to be a preliminary notification of [the elections] but very little public information about them. In that sense, they would be consistent with previous elections in the sense that information is essentially irrelevant to the political process [in Turkmenistan]," Dailey said.

Steve Sabol is a professor at the University of North Carolina and a specialist on Turkmenistan. He agreed with Dailey and said voters in Turkmenistan should be accustomed to holding elections in an information void. "I don't think it's surprising at all. Turkmenistan has a history of running what I call 'stealth elections' in which the general population is given very limited choices and equally limited information about the various candidates," Sabol said.

Today, the newspaper "Neitralnyi Turkmenistan" did report that in Balkan Province -- one of five provinces in Turkmenistan -- voter registration is complete. The report said residents of the province will vote for 11 seats in the People's Council and three in parliament. The paper also mentioned that "activists" were hard at work informing voters of their rights. But the newspaper did not say who the candidates for office were.

Elections will be held in Turkmenistan's "etraps" (districts) for about 60 representatives to the People's Council.

The People's Council has about 3,000 representatives, some elected and some appointed by President Saparmurat Niyazov. It usually meets once a year, but not always. However, the People's Council always assembles if there is a matter of great importance to be decided. It met in December 1999 to name Niyazov president for life and again in December 2002 to demand an amendment the constitution permitting death penalty sentences for the people who allegedly tried to kill Niyazov last November.

The parliament has 50 seats. It remains unclear how many seats in parliament are up for election. Earlier, vague reports said two seats, but the report in "Neitralnyi Turkmenistan" said there were three seats up for election in Balkan Province alone.

Some would argue that it does not matter if Turkmenistan's electorate is informed about the political candidates. It is widely accepted that Niyazov is the final arbiter in all matters, and there are rumors the president even personally selects the candidates and decides who will be the victor.

Dailey agreed with this assessment and said it is difficult to know just what elected officials can do for their constituents. "It is difficult to draw any conclusions about the activities of legislators and the lives of their constituents because it is a top-down structure, because all decisions appear to be made at the highest levels of government. There is no indication that any decisions made at levels lower than the presidential level have any effect whatsoever," Dailey said.

In fact, the only difference between the upcoming election and previous elections, according to Professor Sabol, is that there is even less information available to voters this time around than before.

Dailey pointed out, however, that like earlier elections, there is only one party represented: Niyazov's Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, the only officially registered political party in the country. "The general political pattern is that again there is no indication that any alternative parties are represented in political balloting. There is essentially no indication this will be anything except an empty exercise. It's interesting, at this stage, that the government feels any necessity whatsoever to even make a pretense to hold elections for any government position," Dailey said.

Sabol believes the reason for holding elections has to do with the November assassination attempt against Niyazov. The Turkmen president escaped unharmed, but the event unleashed a wave of arrests in the country. Many former government officials were implicated in the investigation, and the loyalty of everyone in the country suddenly became a priority issue in Turkmenistan. "It may be a response to the assassination attempt, the fact that in the last election all the candidates were selected by Niyazov himself. This seems to be the same pattern. The one change that might be evident is the fact there is so little information about the various candidates that it makes everyone curious as to who might still be loyal to Niyazov who he can, perhaps, include on the ballots," Sabol said.

It has been said in some countries that a vote cast in ignorance is worse than no vote at all. In Turkmenistan, however, where President Niyazov continues to insist his government is following its own unique path toward democracy, an uninformed vote is the only vote possible.

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