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Turkmenistan: Presidential Campaign Opens With Surprising Promises Of Reform

Acting President Gubanguly Berdymukhammedov on December 22 (ITAR-TASS) January 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan's six presidential candidates officially hit the campaign trail this week. They are traveling into terra incognito in Turkmenistan, where there has never been a multicandidate presidential election. And Turkmen citizens are even hearing some new things from the presidential candidates for the election scheduled for February 11.

It is actually only a slight departure from what has become the norm in Turkmenistan. State media and top ranking officials, including the head of the country's Central Election Commission, have already voiced their preference for Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

From Unknown To Favorite

Few people had heard of Berdymukhammedov until December 21, when state media announced that Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov was dead and that Berdymukhammedov would be the acting president.

Then the constitution was quickly changed to allow Berdymukhammedov -- who should be ineligible to run for president -- to be a candidate for the post.

State media also quickly switched from its intensive coverage of Niyazov to showing Berdymukhammedov, Niyazov's heir apparent.

Before looking at the campaign promises of the country's acting leader, it is interesting to hear what one of his opponents said during a meeting with potential voters earlier this week.

Ishanguly Nuryyev is the deputy minister of gas, oil, and mineral resources in Turkmenistan and a candidate for president.

Campaign Promises

"If you name me president of Turkmenistan, God willing, we will fulfill all the tasks of our program," he said. "As a worker in the oil and [natural] gas industry, I promise the production [of oil and natural gas] will be increased. I will improve the social sphere, develop agriculture, build new homes, and improve health care and education. Building new villages will also be a priority in my policies."

Nuryyev's choice of the word "name" instead of "elect" is not surprising. Since gaining independence in 1991, Turkmenistan held one presidential election, in June 1992, when President Niyazov ran unopposed and officially received 99.5 percent of the vote.

The 1994 parliamentary elections were more of the same: 51 candidates competed for 50 seats in that election. The term "alternative" or competitive is still not being used by Turkmen state media when referring to the impending presidential election.

But what is most surprising is that the presidential candidates are apparently free to note there were shortcomings in Niyazov's policies and that there is now room for reform.

Real Reforms?

When he was alive, Niyazov set all policies in Turkmenistan. There was no debate, at least publicly, and no second-guessing after new rules and regulations were announced and state media repeatedly reported on the unqualified success of these policies.

All six candidates have already said publicly that they would continue Niyazov's policies if elected. But even the favorite, Berdymukhammedov, is speaking about reforms.

"The creation of new places in the workforce will be one of my main tasks, together with building new plants and factories we will create new medium-[sized] and small businesses," he said. "We will pay special attention to the matter of privatization."

Unemployment was rarely a subject that was discussed during Niyazov's rule. Harsh restrictions on travel to Turkmenistan or -- for citizens -- travel out of the country and a tightly controlled media left most of the world guessing about such things as unemployment or economic figures.

Additionally, people in Turkmenistan had great difficulty receiving information about what was happening outside the country. It was extremely hard for Turkmen citizens to receive foreign television or radio broadcasts and access to the Internet was nearly impossible -- as the only license provider is the Communications Ministry.

Internet Access

But candidate Berdymukhammedov indicated that such isolation for the Turkmen people could change.

"We will create the right conditions for developing the transportation and communications network," he said. "I will pay a great deal of attention to this sphere. The latest technology -- [for example] the Internet -- should be available to every person in the country."

Berdymukhammedov made other promises that are perhaps familiar to voters in many countries but definitely not to Turkmenistan's electorate.

"Wages will be paid to workers on time and those who want to build their own home or buy their own, they can receive a loan on advantageous terms," he said. "Pensioners who received state financial aid, benefits, and other help [and have since lost these], I think their future will be reviewed."

Surprising Promises

Naturally, voters in many countries would say that politicians' promises while campaigning are quite different from what they deliver when in office.

But for Western democracies accustomed to Turkmenistan's isolation and the government's seeming disregard for basic civil rights, the candidates' promises to restore the educational system, allow Internet access to the public, and essentially raise the standard of living in Turkmenistan marks a departure from the previous regime.

Still, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, while remaining optimistic about the changes under way in Turkmenistan, was cautious about the upcoming presidential election.

"We would hope that as part of the succession process that there would be free, open, fair elections," he said. "Now, Turkmenistan has a long way to go from where it stands right now to [reach] that goal."

Optimists could add that one month ago even the idea of holding a presidential election seemed a long way off for Turkmenistan.

(Rozinazar Khudaiberdiev and Guvanch Geraev of the Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)

Saparmurat Niyazov, 1940-2006

Saparmurat Niyazov, 1940-2006

Turkment President Saparmurat Niyazov (

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