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Turkmenistan: Election Noteworthy For Lower Official Voter Turnout

Authorities in Ashgabat have declared Turkmenistan's 19 December parliamentary elections valid, but independent observers have denounced them as a sham. The surprise was the relatively low official turnout figure. Officials say "just" 77 percent of eligible voters cast ballots for the 50 seats in the Mejlis - a lower figure than in previous elections.

Prague, 20 December 2004 -- It seemed nothing unpredictable could happen during parliamentary elections in Turkmenistan.

Only one political party -- the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan -- was allowed to take part. And the parliament - the Mejlis -- plays only a symbolic role in the country. The Halk Maslahaty -- a 2,450-member "people's council" -- is considered the main legislative body.

However, the election did bring at least one surprise. The reported turnout was "only" 76.88 percent, compared to 99.6 percent for the last parliamentary election five years ago.

Russia's "Kommersant-Daily" assessed it as "almost a revolution" for Turkmenistan. Independent observers say actual turnout might even have been much lower.

Some district governors organized concerts to encourage people to come and vote. Children in traditional costume awaited President Saparmurat Niyazov's arrival at a polling station. They sang national songs.

Niyazov - known as Turkmenbashi, or "Father of All Turkmens" -- showed up some hours later:

"Hello everybody! Do you know my number?" Niyazov asked.

No international organization observed the elections.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was refused entry to Turkmenistan.

"We cannot comment on the Turkmen elections since we were not able to observe them," said a spokeswoman for the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), Urdur Gunnarsdottir. "We did apply for visas to send an assessment team to Turkmenistan, but we did not get visas and [there was] no explanation."

Turkmen officials have said the vote was held in compliance with international norms and Turkmenistan's election law.

Halmurat Suyunov, a former member of the Turkmen parliament, currently living abroad, said in a telephone interview with RFE/RL that in his opinion the new Mejlis does not represent the Turkmen people.

"Members of parliament who were elected according to the orders given from above will only represent those who assigned them," Suyunov said. "In the new Mejlis, there is no deputy who will protect the people's rights and interests."

There has been little reaction from foreign governments.

Khudayberdy Orazov, a former prime minister of Turkmenistan and founder of the "Watan" ("Fatherland") opposition movement, said he believes the Turkmen people can expect no improvement while Niyazov holds the power. Orazov is also critical of Russia and the West, who in his opinion do not pressure the Niyazov regime for more reforms.

"All [countries], Russia at the first place and also the West, are satisfied to have [Niyazov in power]," Orazov said. "This is the reason: the West thinks if it would pressure him more or would assist the opposition, then [Niyazov] would ignore them completely. So far, he listens to them. Besides, [Western companies like] General Electric, Boeing, Case, and others have signed multimillion dollar contracts and work directly with Niyazov."

Fifty new members of the Mejlis are elected for five years. There are five committees of the parliament on economy and social policy, science, education and culture, legal matters, and international affairs.

Names of new parliament members will be announced within 10 days. All are likely to be ethnic Turkmens. Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Russians, and other ethnic minorities are not represented in the Mejlis.

For in-depth information about the elections, including details about the candidates and the parties, see Turkmenistan Votes 2004

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