Parliamentary elections are due in Turkmenistan in December, but so far no candidates have been announced. In ceremonies marking the eighth anniversary of independence, President Saparmurat Niyazov this week pledged that the elections would be open and competitive. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that the last eight years cast doubt on the pledge.
Prague, 29 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In its eight years of independence, Turkmenistan has established an image as a land with great natural resource potential. It has also earned a reputation as having one of the most repressive governments in the world.
The U.S. State Department, in its annual report issued early this year, criticized authorities in Turkmenistan for what it said were arbitrary arrests, detentions and unfair trials. The report also said authorities completely control all media and rarely allow criticism of government officials or policies.
The international pressure group Human Rights Watch, in its most recent annual report, accused the government of denying citizens "virtually all civil liberties."
The only leader the country has known since independence is President Saparmurat Niyazov, who wields supreme power. But Niyazov this week pledged that he would encourage broader public participation in the country's political life. He indicated that this should be the case with elections to parliament December 12. Niyazov used part of his Independence Day speech in the capital, Ashgabat, Wednesday to encourage people to participate in the process.
"In Turkmenistan everyone has the right to vote and to be elected. Let the people elect whoever they wish. Members of parliament are elected by the people. The government will not stand in the way of elections, we guarantee that. The way is open."
Citizens do have the right to vote in Turkmenistan and official results from previous elections have claimed that more than 90 percent of voters participated. But in Turkmenistan as in other countries in Central Asia, a key issue is the limitations on the right to run for posts. In the last elections to parliament in 1994 there were only 51 candidates competing for 50 seats. In the country's only presidential election in 1992 Niyazov ran alone.
The Turkmen president had an answer for any critics who might raise these points when he addressed the heads of diplomatic missions in Ashgabat last Friday.
"There can not be economic and political reforms that work according to a universal pattern. So we will carry out reforms of democratization. I have already talked about that a lot. If there is one country that loves democracy it is Turkmenistan."
For those wishing to compete in the December parliamentary elections, the first requirement is to gather the signatures of 1,000 eligible voters. The hurdle does not seem too high. Yet to date, no one has publicly announced plans to run.
One person who had stated a general intention to compete is Pirimguly Tangrikuliev. The well-known doctor was just beginning to make his intentions known in the middle of this year when he was detained by law enforcement officials amid accusations he had misappropriated state property and funds. The secrecy surrounding his trial, conviction and sentencing in early August seemed to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the accusations.
In addition to a lack of candidates, there are also no opposition parties in Turkmenistan. Those who have tried to start them have ended up either in jails, psychiatric hospitals or have fled the country. The Turkmen government says all these people are in trouble for something other than their political ambitions.
Despite all of this, Niyazov this week pledged that not only December parliamentary elections but also presidential elections in three years time would be free.
"The election campaign starts in two days, and the way is open to everyone. Whoever the people will elect will become members of parliament. Prior to elections every candidate will be allowed to present their program on television. The presidential elections will follow in the year 2002. Whoever wants to participate must start working hard for it today. Everyone has the right to participate in the presidential elections."
As for the presidential race in three years, all observers expect that Niyazov will run. Whether anyone will compete against him is less certain.
Standing next to Niyazov on Independence Day were Marat Berdisoldiev, the chairman of the Peasants Association, and Murat Garif, the chairman of the country's religious council. They both said that besides Niyazov there is no other qualified person to lead the country and called for Niyazov to be president for life.
More immediately, the race for parliament officially begins today. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is due to send an assessment team to Turkmenistan on November 8 to examine whether a team should be sent to monitor voting. President Saparmurat Niyazov has urged it to do so. But OSCE officials have expressed doubts whether conditions will permit the presence of a monitoring team.
OSCE officials have told RFE/RL they believe it could be years before conditions for democratic elections exist in Turkmenistan. One recently told RFE/RL that even if more than one candidate is allowed to compete for individual seats in December, it is highly unlikely that any discernible difference on policy will exist.
(Masha Rasner, Rozinar Khoudaiberdiev, Ayna Khallyeva and Mohammed Zarif Nazar of the Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)