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Turkmen Voters Doubt Elections Will Make Any Difference

  • Farangis Najibullah

Many Turkmen voters find out the names of the candidates only when they arrive at the polling station.

Many Turkmen voters find out the names of the candidates only when they arrive at the polling station.

It was only one week prior to Turkmenistan's parliamentary elections when Gozel, an Ashgabat resident, heard for the first time that the country was going to the polls on December 14 to elect a new Mejlis.

The 36-year-old artist tells RFE/RL that she and most of her neighbors don't know much about their local candidates or their programs.

The Challenges Of Covering An Election In A Closed Country.
"I've heard that this vote is going to be different from previous elections, but so far I haven't seen any difference -- the candidates aren't meeting with their voters, and when they give television interviews, instead of talking about their programs, the candidates talk about their support and loyalty to the president," Gozel says.

Like Gozel, many of Turkmenistan's other 2.5 million eligible voters do not see the upcoming elections as a significant political event in the country.

"Elections here have always been just a bureaucratic procedure, a ritual that doesn't change anything, and I don't have any reason to think that Sunday's elections will be any different," says a 27-year-old Turkmen journalist who doesn't want to give his name.

Turkmen authorities, however, insist that much has changed since President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov came to power in 2006.

During the 21-year rule of his autocratic predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, the country held no elections that were considered free and fair by the international community.

More Seats, More Power?

The new president, who has introduced tentative reforms to open up the energy-rich country -- such as opening Internet cafes and paving the way for Turkmen students to study abroad -- has also changed the law on parliamentary elections.

While keeping the country's one-party system intact, the president has said he wants to give more power to parliament. He has raised the number of seats in parliament from 50 to 125 and invited international observers to monitor the polls.

Many Turkmen, however, do not believe a bigger parliament translates into more power in decision-making.

"All candidates are chosen by the authorities, all of them are loyal to the president," the Turkmen journalist says. "I don't think any of them would dare to speak their mind or, for instance, reject a bill or suggest some reforms."

According to officials in Ashgabat, more than 280 candidates have been registered to contest parliamentary seats. A majority of them are members of the Democratic Party, Turkmenistan's only registered party, and the rest are representatives of state-sponsored organizations, such as so-called women's or youth "initiative groups."

'Elections? What Elections?'

Meanwhile, little information about the elections has reached remote villages in the countryside.

Gulya, a young woman in Chandabil district in northern Turkmenistan, tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that she had "no idea" about the upcoming elections. "I didn't know elections were taking place until you mentioned it," she says. "None of my friends are aware about the vote itself, let alone the candidates and their programs."

Many of those who were aware of the elections say they don't believe the new parliament will change anything in their lives. A 48-year-old unemployed woman in the eastern Mary Province says she has lost faith in officials.

"I was asking former parliament members to help me to find a job, but they didn't, and I don't think the new parliament will be any better," says the woman, who like many other people in Turkmenistan was reluctant to give her name to foreign media.

Despite people's lack of information about the elections, the Turkmen journalist in Ashgabat believes there won't be any problem with turnout on election day.

"Usually, two to three days before the vote, local police officers go house to house and tell people to go to the polling stations on Sunday morning," the journalist says. "People in Turkmenistan are afraid of the police, so they do what they are told by the police."

Gozel, the artist in Ashgabat, says she is going to vote.

"I don't have anything else to do on Sunday morning anyway," she says.

Like many other Turkmen voters, she'll find out the names of the candidates at the polling stations on election day.

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