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Turkmenistan: Parliamentary Elections Prove As Unfree As Expected

Turkmenistan held its internationally criticized parliamentary elections yesterday. International agencies pronounced the election campaign so flawed that they refused to send even an observer mission to watch what was expected to be an unfair vote with n-o real opposition parties to choose from. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports.

Prague, 13 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Amid widespread criticism of unfair election practices and voter apathy, the Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan claimed a turnout of 98.9 percent in yesterday's parliamentary elections.

Turkmen officials said before the elections that democratic principles were being observed. But human rights organizations and institutes monitoring democracy said before the elections that the ballot for parliamentary deputies was a sham orchestrated by the government. The votes are now in, and both sides are sticking to their pre-poll assessments.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which frequently monitors elections in Europe and Central Asia, did not send any observers to Turkmenistan, not even a limited mission such as it sent to Kazakhstan's presidential election in January or Uzbekistan parliamentary elections earlier this month.

Instead, the OSCE leveled criticism ahead of time of a kind usually reserved for a post-election assessment. An OSCE statement last week said the preparations for elections did "not meet minimal OSCE commitments for democratic elections." And, it added, "the preparations for these elections indicate that there will be no plurality of candidatures and that bodies in charge of administering the election process are neither effective nor independent institutions."

Elsa Fenet is with the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in Warsaw, from where she spoke by telephone today with RFE/RL. She did n-o-t comment on the conduct of the balloting yesterday, as the OSCE did not send any monitors. But she did say the organization found the whole election process inadequate.

"The ODIHR has very grave concerns concerning the broad electoral framework in Turkmenistan -- not election day, but the general pre-election environment and the overall legislative framework, which we consider inadequate for even minimally democratic elections."

Reports from Russian and Western sources indicate this was the case. A quick review of the press today reveals the distance between what Turkmen officials say happened yesterday and what everyone else is saying.

Russia's Interfax news agency yesterday reported that Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov was one of the first to cast his ballot. In the report's words: "It is unclear for whom the president voted. One thing is clear, though, his political preferences meant nothing, since both candidates [in his district], as well as 99 percent of all those running for parliament, were members of the country's sole ruling Democratic Party."

Interfax noted though, that "the entire election campaign voting and results counting included has been monitored by national observers and the Turkmen Institute for Democracy and Human Rights. Institute experts have not reported a single impropriety so far." What Interfax did not report is that the Institute is under the sway of the government, with President Niyazov as its head.

An official in that institute, Shemshat Atadzhanova, said, "No violations were reported to observers so far. The activity of voters has never been so good."

But the high reported turnout is questionable. Reuters reported that the government gave out wristwatches as an inducement to vote -- quite a bonus in a country where average monthly wages are equivalent to around $20. Yet ignorance seemed high: the British news agency quotes one resident in Ashgabat who did not know there was an election scheduled and another saying his vote did not matter because all candidates support the president.

Interfax reported that some local election commissions said they had to walk around with ballot boxes, looking for voters.

But if yesterday's elections were a black mark on Turkmenistan's democracy report card, the OSCE foresees a much more serious breach of democratic principles to come.

The OSCE statement last week said, "Officials and state newspapers are openly advocating for the next step toward the so-called Golden Age, where Niyazov is expected to be nominated 'Great Leader of the Turkmen people' for life, with powers to appoint and dismiss officials, parliamentarians and even the president, or make himself president for life."

The Halk Maslahaty, or People's Council, is due to meet at the end of December. Many expect that at this meeting, the council -- which includes members of the parliament and ministries -- will recommend that Niyazov accept such a status. The OSCE's Elsa Fenet said today that the prospect of increased powers for President Niyazov is worrying for the future of democracy in Turkmenistan.

These are only rumors, obviously. This is not a substantiated fact and we will wait to see until the end of the year what happens with the potential developments in Turkmenistan. However there are growing concerns that the powers of the president -- which are already extremely important -- may be further enhanced. Obviously the ODIHR will monitor closely any evolution, particularly any changes in the constitution or any legal documents related to the powers of the president."

Niyazov has often said his country is traveling its own path to democracy. But with yesterday's parliamentary elections, the path seem to be leading elsewhere.