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Turkmen Leaders Hail 'Democratic' Vote, Critics Unconvinced

A portrait of President Berdymukhammedov displayed in Ashgabat ahead of the vote

A portrait of President Berdymukhammedov displayed in Ashgabat ahead of the vote

ASHGABAT (Reuters) - Turkmenistan's government has called the parliamentary election a milestone in the country's democratic reform, even though only state-approved candidates were permitted to stand.

Most of the candidates in the December 14 election represented the ruling Democratic Party -- the only one registered in Turkmenistan -- and there were a handful of state-approved independents.

The gas-rich ex-Soviet nation on the Caspian Sea has been emerging from isolation since autocratic ruler Saparmurat Niyazov died in 2006 after an eccentric, 21-year reign.

His successor, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, has promised reform to attract foreign investors, and the election was central to this plan. The aim was to create a bigger and more powerful parliament that would have a greater say in national decision-making.

"The elections that took place in the atmosphere of openness...and gave voters a wide range of choices became a new step on the path of strengthening democratic principles in Turkmen society," the state-owned Turkmen Khabarlary news agency said.

Fair Vote 'Impossible'

Critics said the election, in which 94 percent of the electorate voted, was far from fair. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe did not send a full monitoring mission, saying a genuine contest was impossible.

"Elections were just the same under Niyazov," said Farid Tukhbatulin, a Turkmen rights campaigner who spoke to Reuters from Vienna, where he lives in exile. "Not only are there no political parties, but ethnic minorities were also poorly represented among the candidates."

Reporters Without Borders called Turkmenistan, along with North Korea, an "unchanging hell" in its latest global press freedom report, saying its population "is cut off from the world and is subjected to propaganda worthy of a bygone age."

The presence of foreign media was limited, as many journalists were unable to get permission to cover the vote.

The Turkmen opposition mostly lives in exile and has shown little interest in the election. None of the opposition leaders could be reached for comment or posted any statements.

"The conditions are not in place to hold a free and fair election that would be a meaningful reflection of the will of the people," Human Rights Watch said in a report last month.