Prague, 16 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- What type of tobacco to use. What kind of theaters to attend. Which newspapers to read. How many doctors the nation needs. These questions are among the many that Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov decides for his nation's people.
Niyazov -- who calls himself Turkmenbashi, or "Father of All Turkmen" -- also makes decisions about which candidates can run for seats in parliament.
In a televised speech last week, Niyazov instructed members of the Central Election Commission on the documents needed by every candidate nominated to run for the Mejlis, and pointed out how their CVs should be written.
Niyazov also spoke about the skills that members of parliament must possess. "They should be very educated and intelligent people. Don't include people who are not known to us," he said. "Let's have different candidates. We need lawyers who can write laws and people who can defend the reputation of Turkmenistan in international organizations."
But opposition leaders say that, despite Niyazov's appeal, intelligence and superior qualifications are unlikely to make much difference, since parliament has a nominal role in the governance of the country and all decisions are ultimately made by Niyazov himself.
Khudaiberdy Orazov is a former prime minister of Turkmenistan and a founder of the Watan (Fatherland) opposition movement. "Those 50 [members of parliament] just receive their salaries. They don't consider any documents or laws. The presidential administration works out all legislative acts, and then Niyazov signs them. Signed documents are then sent to the Mejlis. Everything works according to Niyazov's orders," Orazov said.
International observers, as well as voters, have expressed little interest in the 19 December elections, knowing that the polls will have no impact on political life in Turkmenistan.
Erika Dailey, the director of the Turkmenistan Project of the Open Society Institute (OSI), said the OSI does not take Turkmen elections seriously. "The elections are elections in name only. Clearly, there is no exercise of any political opinion in this elections," she said. "Even though there are approximately -- slightly over -- two candidates for each of the 50 positions in the Mejlis, there is only one party. There is only one platform. And the environment of fear means that the candidates really are not in any meaningful way different from one another. So the process of election is very much as it was during the Soviet period. It's simply a pretension of democracy."
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had expressed interest in observing the vote. But in September, the organization's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) was refused entry after it attempted to send an assessment mission to Turkmenistan.
ODIHR spokeswoman Urdur Gunnarsdottir told RFE/RL: "We asked for visas to be able to look into the issue and then decide whether we should have an observation [mission]. But we've not been able to go to Turkmenistan to talk to the people that we need to talk. We need to get a picture of the situation before we decide. And we have not been able to do that because we were not issued visas."
"As in Soviet times, people will feel the need to go and vote because of pressure at the workplace or pressure by neighbors and family, in order not to seem disloyal to the government."
Turkmenistan's Central Election Commission recently announced that foreign observers may apply for permission to monitor the elections, but notes that no special invitations have been sent to international organizations.
Turkmen officials say they are ready to demonstrate that the elections will be free and fair. Some 200 national observers will monitor the polling. Interfax quoted officials from the Central Election Commission as saying the observers will represent the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, as well as some civic organizations, such as the Youth League and the Union of Women.
Turkmenistan's constitution was amended in 2003 to stipulate that the 50-seat Mejlis is part of the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council), a supreme legislative body led by Niyazov. The constitution says the 2,450 members of the Halk Maslahaty are appointed by the president. The only registered political party is the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan.
Niyazov admits the Turkmen political system is unique. "Our parliament dramatically differs from [the parliaments] of other countries of the world," he said. "According to the constitution, the Halk Maslahaty has been the main legislature so far. parliament only writes laws for the Halk Maslahaty [to approve]. This is the job [of members of parliament]."
Parliamentary elections were last held in Turkmenistan in December 1999. At that time, officials declared that 99.6 percent of voters had cast ballots. Independent observers said the actual turnout was much lower.
The OSI's Erika Dailey told RFE/RL that a "fear factor" is at work in Turkmenistan's elections. "Certainly, there are many who understand that this is an empty exercise and that there is no point in casting a vote," she said. "But as in Soviet times, people will feel the need to go and vote because of pressure at the workplace or pressure by neighbors and family, in order not to seem disloyal to the government."
If international observers and Turkmen voters realize that the elections are a farce, why does Niyazov even bother? Dailey said the polls at least give the appearance that Turkmenistan is something other than an outright dictatorship.
"[The election] makes it different from some dictatorships. Not all dictatorships care. In this case, the government of Turkmenistan does care, in part, because it allows them to make excuses to the international community about their compliance with principles of democracy and human rights norms," Dailey said.
To support this pretension, observers note that voters have more candidates to choose from on the ballot papers in this election and that many of the candidates supposedly represent citizen's committees rather than the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan.
(Rozynazar Khoudaiberdiev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)