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Turkmenistan: Elections Are Unlikely To Further Democracy

This is the second of a four-part series looking at Central Asia's upcoming elections. In this report, RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier says that with elections just five months away, prospects for genuine democracy in Turkmenistan do not look promising.

Prague, 4 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- With just five months to go before Turkmenistan's parliamentary elections, there is little political activity in the country and no real indication of who will run.

There is also growing evidence that candidates have already been pre-approved -- though not yet announced -- by Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, who is commonly viewed as having absolute power in the country. The vote on Dec. 12 is Turkmenistan's first for its 50-seat unicameral parliament since 1994.

Bess Brown works in the Ashgabat office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). She says the National Institute for Democratization has been conducting some voter education. But, she says, it's not clear what voters are being told.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Brown said that neither her organization -- which traditionally provides electoral assistance to countries -- nor other national or international groups are involved.

"The National Institute for Democratization, which is our neighbor here...there have been some reports in [the newspaper] Neitralny Turkmenistan about them doing voter education projects. But they have said nothing to us about it. They've not asked us to assist them or for any participation by other international organizations or by [the United States Agency for International Development] USAID. They seem to have approached no one. They're just doing it on their own, so I don't know what exactly they're doing."

Brown says that although there is only one officially registered political party in Turkmenistan -- the Democratic Party headed by Niyazov -- there are likely to be contested elections in some districts. She said this doesn't mean, however, that there will be competing programs or points of view:

"I would expect that there will be multiple candidacies in each electoral district. In other words, several different people running for the same office. But, I suspect they won't have their own distinctive programs and that there will probably be very little difference between them."

In addition, she said, certain people would be discouraged from attempting to get nominated. Only people who are officially approved will actually be able to be nominated as candidates.

One potential safeguard, or at least an objective gauge of the level of democracy in Turkmenistan, would be the participation of the OSCE as electoral monitors.

Brown says, though, that her organization probably won't send monitors because that would require an invitation from the Turkmen leadership. Such an invitation is not expected.

"So far, there has been no request for an OSCE observation mission. Earlier this year, the president met with the National Institute for Democracy and said Turkmenistan would not invite outside observers but that observers would be welcome if they wanted to come. That's got it backward for the OSCE because the OSCE cannot observe elections without a formal request from the country that is having the elections. ...So, that's pretty much the end of our possibility of being involved in the election procedure at all."

President Niyazov has said his country is heading toward democracy along its own unique path and, so far, the preparations for parliamentary elections support his comments.

It's unclear to those outside Turkmenistan, though, how the present course can lead to genuine democracy.

Naz Nazar and Ayna Khallyeva of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.