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Turkmenistan: Explaining The Presidential Election

A police checkpoint in Ashgabad in the runup to the February 11 election (OSCE) February 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Voters in one of the former Soviet Union's least open societies went to the polls on February 11 to elect a successor to the late Turkmen "president for life," Saparmurat Niyazov. Here are answers to some basic questions about Turkmenistan's presidential vote, which was widely expected to fall short of Western democratic standards.

Why is Turkmenistan holding a presidential election now?

Turkmenistan was forced to call a presidential election after long-time President Saparmurat Niyazov died in late December. The death, from heart failure, of Turmenistan's "president for life" was announced early on the morning of December 21 and came as a surprise to most observers.

What have Turkmenistan's previous presidential elections been like?

Turkmenistan has only held one presidential election, on 21 June, 1992, in which Niyazov ran unopposed. According to official figures from Turkmenistan, 99.8 percent of the electorate cast ballots and 99.5 percent of voters picked Niyazov. On 15 January, 1994, a referendum was held to extend Niyazov's term in office until 2002; but on 28 December, 1999, the Halk Maslahaty, or People's Council, voted to make Niyazov the country's president for life.

Who is running in the February 11 presidential election and how were they nominated?

Six candidates applied and were registered to compete in the February 11 presidential election. They are: acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov; First Deputy Governor of Dashoguz Province Amanyaz Atajykov; Deputy Minister of the Gas Industry and Mineral Resources Ishanguly Nuryev; Karabekaul district (Lebap Province) head Mukhammetnazar Gurbanov; Abadan Mayor (Akhal Province) Orazmyrad Garajaev; and Turkmenbashi City Mayor (Balkan Province) Ashyrniyaz Pomanov.

Berdymukhammedov was named acting president shortly after the announcement of Niyazov's death. He and the other five candidates were confirmed by the Halk Maslahaty at an emergency session on 26 December. As the Halk Maslahaty selected all candidates, none can reasonably be described as representing the political opposition.

Turkmenistan's opposition-in-exile forwarded a candidate, former Deputy Prime Minister Khudaiberdy Orazov, but amendments hastily made to the constitution in the wake of Niyazov's death state that to be eligible to run for the presidency a person must have lived in Turkmenistan for the past 15 years. That stipulation clearly excludes any member of Turkmenistan's opposition-in-exile from seeking the post. The leader of the opposition Agzybirlik movement, Nurberdy Nurmammedov, was technically eligible to run but under house arrest in Turkmenistan.

Is there a favorite going into this election?

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov was the clear front-runner going into the ballot. His ascension to the post of acting president was largely unforeseen but signaled that forces running the country wished to see him assume the presidency. The Central Election Committee chairman, Murad Karryev, vowed shortly after Berdymukhammedov was cleared to run for the presidency that he would "do everything" to ensure that Berdymukhammedov wins "because he is a worthy candidate." Unconfirmed rumors have been floated that Berdymukhammedov is Niyazov's illegitimate son, although they remain strictly rumors and their effect on the presidential race is unclear.

Why should people outside the country care about this vote?

Firstly, because Turkmenistan is rich in natural gas and oil. Upon independence in 1991, the government started to develop relatively untouched hydrocarbon deposits, but more than ample supplies of those energy resources remain in the ground. But Turkmenistan suffers from a serious shortage of export routes. The major gas pipeline from the country runs through Russia, and disputes with Russian gas giant Gazprom have led to several cutoffs in supplies. There are plans to build other pipelines to China and prospects for joining with pipelines crossing the Caspian Sea.

Turkmenistan is also strategically located, bordering Iran and Afghanistan to the south, Uzbekistan to the east, Kazakhstan to the north, and the Caspian Sea to the west.

What are the chances of a "free and fair" election?

No election in Turkmenistan has ever been judged to be even remotely in accordance with international standards for democratic elections. Turkmen state media devoted a great deal of coverage to acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, offering him a huge advantage in a field of relative unknowns. No Western monitoring organizations are expected to issue any formal conclusions on the nature of the voting.

How long is a presidential term and how powerful is the presidency in Turkmenistan?

Presidential terms are five years, although the late President Saparmurat Niyazov, elected in 1992, held a referendum in 1994 to extend his term in office until 2002. In 1999, the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council) bestowed on Niyazov the title of "president for life." Niyazov was far and away the most powerful figure in Turkmen political life. No decision of any consequence was made without his approval or clearance.

It remains unclear how much power Niyazov's successor will enjoy. Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is the selection of an inner circle within the Turkmen government, and he is unlikely to make many major decisions for the country without significant input and counseling from those who orchestrated his appointment as acting president after Niyazov's death.

(updated February 14)

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

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