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Turkmenistan: Apathy Reigns Ahead Of Parliamentary Elections

The Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan holds elections to its Majlis, or parliament, this Sunday (Dec. 12). RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that many voters stopped on the streets of the capital don't know and don't care about the elections, which mean little in a country completely under the sway of the authoritarian president.

Prague, 10 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The apathy surrounding the Turkmen parliamentary elections is a reflection of a political system that has been widely criticized for its authoritarianism.

International organizations and foreign governments have long criticized President Saparmurat Niyazov as a dictator with complete authority who has nourished a cult of personality. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which frequently monitors the fairness of elections in the region, is not sending any mission to observe the December 12 Turkmen elections -- not even a small, "limited assessment" mission.

Niyazov had requested a full mission to monitor the elections when he met the OSCE chairman, Knut Vollebaek, in Ashgabat in October. But OSCE officials say they could not agree with the president on creating conditions for democratic elections and will not send observers. Random polling by RFE/RL on the streets of the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, indicates that the Turkmen people are not much interested in participating in elections either.

Last week an RFE/RL correspondent went to downtown Ashgabat to take an unscientific survey, asking people what they thought of the candidates.

Turkmen newspapers and television have carried portraits of candidates in the run-up to elections, and those candidates have reportedly campaigned among the people. But even in the capital, some voters, such as this woman, were completely uninformed about Sunday's elections.

"(correspondent) When are elections?

(woman) Only God knows, I do not know.

(correspondent) What are the elections for?

(Woman) I don't know.

(correspondent) Will you go?

(woman) I don't know. If I go, what will be there?"

The woman explained that she has little time to consider politics, as she has to work and take care of her children. She said she is worried because there is no heat at home or at the children's school.

At the official exchange rate, the average wage in Turkmenistan is equivalent to about $20 a month, but in reality it is much lower. The government subsidizes basic needs, so flour is relatively cheap, and gas and electricity cost nearly nothing. But there are shortages -- flour, natural gas, electricity, and water are all rationed.

With such a wealth of social and political issues to address, these elections would be a genuine showdown between candidates if democracy were functioning in Turkmenistan. But all candidates running on Sunday, though registered as independents, are reportedly supporters of the country's only political party -- the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. In the words of an OSCE spokesman: "Not even a minimum level of pluralism for competitive elections exists in Turkmenistan."

In RFE/RL's informal survey, thirteen of the 32 people asked knew December 12 was election day. One young man from the Turkmen military academy even correctly noted that the date is also the anniversary of UN recognition for Turkmenistan's neutral status. One person thought December 9 was the election day, another said next year, 15 did not know and two said they did not care.

Asked whether they would vote, fourteen people said yes, five said no, three did not know, two asked what is the use, and the other eight did not respond.

One person who said he would vote spoke of the candidate he would choose.

"A fellow from our area, Bairamgeldy Chariev. He is from Hodjambas (district). He is in the Democratic Party. He works on a human rights committee. He was nominated by that organization."

The human rights organization the man spoke of is headed by President Niyazov. With 103 candidates running for 50 seats, every seat should be contested by at least two candidates. But only two people surveyed could provide the name of even one candidate, and most had no idea who was running. Most people said they do not read the newspapers or pay attention when candidates appeared on television.

One of the people who said he would not vote was asked why. His answer is typical of many Turkmen voters, who say the parliament has no power to make their lives better.

"The reason is, can the deputies control the water supply in the Mir district [in Ashgabat]? We get only wet clay from our faucets. If the deputies could do something about this, maybe we would go and vote."

For each of the three elections held in Turkmenistan since it became independent in 1991, the government has reported overwhelming turnouts of 99 percent, reminiscent of Soviet election reports. With no OSCE observers watching the voting booths, there will be no-one to gainsay whatever figure the Turkmen government reports for Sunday's turnout. But based on the apathetic response of people on the streets, a high turnout is extraordinarily unlikely.

(Govantsch Gueraev, Aina Khallayeva and Rozinazar Khoudaibaerdiyev of the Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)