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Elections In Turkmenistan Bring Changes, At Least Superficially

Will Turkmen voters have a real choice this time?

Will Turkmen voters have a real choice this time?

(RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan has long had a reputation as one of the most authoritarian states in the world, with only one legally registered political party, no independent media, and a documented history of jailing government opponents.

Critics of the Turkmen government say previous elections were managed by the government and offered no genuine choice. The 1994 parliamentary election, for example, had 51 candidates running for 50 seats.

As campaigning for elections to an expanded parliament officially kicked off last week, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who was health minister when the last elections were held in 2004, lauded the December 14 elections as a departure from the past -- and he has invited international monitors to come and see for themselves.

At a recent cabinet meeting, Berdymukhammedov described the vote as "very important -- especially from the political point of view -- because the programs about reforms that must be carried out soon are complex. It also includes issues such as how to place our society's citizens on a democratic path."

Berdymukhammedov said the ideal candidate should "come with popularity and great respect, specialists in their work. These sort of people should be elected."

President Berdymukhammedov has talked reform, but will any be forthcoming?
Most countries would expect the same from their representatives, but how much of a change can be expected to result from Turkmenistan's poll under a new president?

The election will be held earlier than originally scheduled because the country approved a new constitution earlier this year that, among other changes, increased the number of seats in parliament from 50 to 125.

The new constitution also restored legislative powers to the parliament that were transferred to the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council) in 2003, although the fact that the government is strongly pro-presidential means the change is unlikely to alter the status quo.

Finding Candidates

Curiously, Berdymukhammedov said there would be 250 candidates running, two for each seat. While this guarantees some degree of choice, it is not readily apparent how Berdymukhammedov arrived at that number.

Turkmen civic activist Yaylim Begov thinks he knows the answer, and he explains to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service the difficulty outside candidates had in registering.

"The nomination of candidates for the Mejlis, you could say, is taking place according to the orders of the authorities. The nominating process was very easy for the official Galkynysh [Development] movement committees and the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan," Begov says.

"They can find a place where they can hold a [nominating] session during working hours and participate in forwarding candidates. They don't have any limitations about participants and figures of candidates.

"But a citizens' gathering can only nominate one candidate," he adds. "An initiative group created by 10 people would need to gather 200 people to nominate a candidate, but it is difficult to gather 200 people. These unjust steps give a legal basis to the law on the election of deputies of the Mejlis. Furthermore, one cannot find information from local media that citizens have forwarded any candidates."

The Democratic Party is the sole registered political party and Galkynysh is a state-supported movement, and despite Begov's suggestion, it is unclear that only those two groups will have candidates in the upcoming elections.

Registering Difficulties

But given the Turkmen government's history of quickly stamping out perceived threats to the regime, one can assume that citizens might be apprehensive about gathering in public -- especially in groups of 200 -- to nominate alternative candidates.

Gurbandurdy Durdykuliev
There is further evidence that potential independent candidates faced a difficult task in getting registered. One of them is Gurbandurdy Durdykuliev, a would-be candidate who serves as an example of what can happen to those deemed opponents of the authorities.

Durdykuliev was incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital after he wrote to President Saparmurat Niyazov in January 2004. In the letter he said, "We want to carry out a peaceful express our disagreement with the policies of the president and other senior government officials and urge them to rectify any shortcomings in due course.... I ask you to refrain from using force against the participants of the meeting."

He was released from the hospital in 2006, and had formed an initiative group this year in hopes of running for a seat in parliament.

"They told us verbally that we were three days too late getting in all our forms," Durdykuliev says. "It should have been done before campaigning started. [They said] 'it should have been done by November 9 and you turned them over on November 11.' But the constitution says they can be handed in until November 14."

Durdykuliev does not say he was deliberately excluded, but he does accuse election officials of moving forward the deadline to suit their own schedules, suggesting they may have wanted the extra days to process the candidates' registration forms.

Guvanch Geraev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report