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Turkmenistan: Presidential Election Deemed Neither Free Nor Fair

A woman votes in Ashgabat during the presidential election on February 11 (OSCE) February 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmen election officials are expected to announce the winner of the February 11 presidential election tomorrow. Officials claim more than 98 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast ballots for one of the six candidates in the poll, though reports from Turkmenistan indicate a much lower turnout.

For most countries, a 98.65 percent voter turnout in an election would be amazing. But that's not necessarily the case for Turkmenistan, where official turnout at the last presidential election -- in 1992 -- was 99.8 percent.

Expectations are that acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov will be declared the victor. An official announcement is due on February 13 with the inauguration ceremony for the new president scheduled for the following day.

Disputed Turnout

But the official overwhelming turnout in this presidential election is at odds with reports from RFE/RL correspondents, who reported sparse attendance at several voting centers, both in the capital, Ashgabat, and in the eastern Labap Province.

There were several other comments on the election made by Western officials and experts on Turkmenistan.

A delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was in Turkmenistan for the presidential election. The group was there as unofficial observers, but one deputy among the group, Jose Soares from Portugal, said on election day that the elections "were absolutely not free and fair."

Erika Dailey, the director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project, said from the start that not much could be expected from this election.

"[People note that] this is the first multicandidate presidential election in Turkmenistan," Dailey said. "That may be the case but it's an election without choice. Essentially among the six candidates there were no significant differences in platform and since they were all representing the same [political] party, the vote in an of itself is not significant."

Only A Primary Election?

Dailey said in some democratic countries this type of an election would be the first step in determining a president -- that is, choosing the top candidate from one party.

"Generally that's considered just a primary [election], and a primary is not the basis for actually selecting a president," she said.

That an election was held at all is significant. Previously, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in late December, was named president-for-life at the end of 1999 and the Turkmen regime shrugged off seven years of international criticism for that decision.

It would have come as little surprise to the international community if the Turkmen government had simply appointed a successor without holding a multicandidate election.

Michael Hall, the International Crisis Group's Central Asian project director, told RFE/RL from Bishkek that the reason for holding the election is "legitimacy."

"On the other hand, the very fact that elections are being held is interesting," he said. "The new authorities in Turkmenistan want to show some kind of legitimacy before their own population and before the international community, so one could say it is a good sign that maybe something in Turkmenistan is changing."

Unfair Election Better Than No Election

RFE/RL correspondents in Turkmenistan dispute the 98 percent figure Turkmenistan's CEC provided the day of elections, reporting a light turnout in the areas they observed. But Dailey said that no matter how many people actually voted there is further significance to Turkmenistan holding the election.

"What is important though, and I think profoundly important, is the fact that for the first time people inside Turkmenistan have the opportunity to elect somebody who has already promised change, who has broken certain taboos, for example talking about certain social problems; everything from drug addiction to the failure of the education system and so forth," Dailey said.

It must be noted that just today, the Turkmen government announced that one of the promises that was made during the election campaign -- better access to the Internet -- is becoming a reality.

Turkmentelekom, the only Internet provider in Turkmenistan, announced it is preparing "the first state Internet cafe in the country."

Turkmenistan's CEC has yet to announce a winner for the election -- or even any preliminary results -- though expectations are that acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov will be declared the victor. An official announcement is due on February 13 with the inauguration ceremony for the new president scheduled for the following day.

(RFE/RL's Turkmen and Kyrgyz Services contributed to this report.)

Turkmenistan's Presidential Election

Turkmenistan's Presidential Election

A billboard in Ashgabat with portraits of the candidates in the February 11 election (OSCE)

SIGNS OF CHANGE? Reporters Without Borders analyst Elsa Vidal and RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Merkhat Sharipzhanov led an RFE/RL briefing in Prague about the significance -- or lack thereof -- of Turkmenistan's first-ever competitive presidential election.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 60 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media


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Sorting Out The Presidential Candidates

Presidential Campaign Reflects Latent Social Tensions

Campaign Opens With Surprising Promises Of Reform


RFE/RL's coverage of Turkmenistan.