Turkmenistan is holding a presidential election on February 12. Incumbent Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is seeking to be elected president for the third time, and there is every reason to believe he will succeed.
While the result seems guaranteed, the reasons for holding the election are not as immediately obvious. But there are reasons.
RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, or panel, to discuss Turkmenistan’s presidential election: Who the competitors are, how the so-called campaign has progressed, and most importantly, what is at stake for Berdymukhammedov and what, if anything, can we expect from him after he wins a third term in office.
Moderating the podcast was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From Washington, Victoria Clement, a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, who lived in Turkmenistan and is writing a book on the country, joined the Majlis. Our friend Dr. Luca Anceschi, lecturer in Central Asian studies at Glasgow University in Scotland and author of the book Turkmenistan’s Foreign Policy: Positive Neutrality And The Consolidation Of The Turkmen Regime, participated. From Prague, Farruh Yusupov, the director of RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, took part. I had to have my say on this topic, also.
There are a few new things about this presidential election. Berdymukhammedov faced five competitors when he was first elected in 2007, seven in 2012, and this time is running against eight opponents. For the first time, two political parties -- the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and the Agrarian Party -- are participating, though both parties were created precisely so Turkmenistan’s government could claim it was a multiparty race. And this time the candidates are running for a seven-year term, not five years, as was previously the case.
WATCH: Vote-Buying In Turkmenistan?
As Yusupov explained, not much is known about Berdymukhammedov’s challengers.
"We do see limited footage of the other candidates, but without their voices, only the [news] presenter saying that this candidate met with people in this district of this region, and they only show them for a few seconds," he said.
Yusupov added, "The election campaign itself was not obvious until three of four weeks ago, almost nothing was published in official media..."
Yusupov said that in contrast, "State TV is…showing President Berdymukhammedov running around the country meeting with voters, with different groups of people, giving out gifts, and people saying, not only [they] but their friends and families, 'We will vote for you.'"
Clement said, "This is all heavily scripted and the people who participate in the meetings with the candidates are hand-selected by the government, but I think part of the reason the government bothers to do this is so that it can have a veneer of support. It wants to be able to claim a popular mandate."
No one outside of Turkmenistan seems fooled by this "heavily scripted" election campaign. Human Rights Watch (HRW) just published a statement about Turkmenistan’s presidential election, in which it said the country's "appalling human rights record undermines the possibility of a free and fair presidential election."
Probably very few inside Turkmenistan are fooled, either. Anceschi spoke for many when he said, "I can no longer make sense of why they keep [holding presidential elections]."
Speaking about Berdymukhammedov’s second term in office, the one just coming to an end, Anceschi pointed out this sudden interest Berdymukhammedov has in campaigning, in happily meeting voters, and ini making great promises about the future, seems a bit ridiculous.
"You cannot have five years of extreme authoritarianism and then have a couple of weeks of democracy," Anceschi said. "It doesn’t work like that."
So what is driving Berdymukhammedov and state media’s newfound enthusiasm for this weekend's presidential election?
The answer is the dire economic situation into which Turkmenistan has plummeted in the last two years.
Not even in the early days of independence was Turkmenistan’s economy in as bad a shape as it is today, and though it is impossible to get any sort of accurate poll as to the popularity of Berdymukhammedov, it is surely lower than it was just a few years ago.
The panelists agreed that external factors have caused many of the problems Turkmenistan faces today. Natural gas is Turkmenistan’s major export, and the price of gas is half what it was just a few years ago. There are security problems along Turkmenistan’s border with Afghanistan, something else for which Berdymukhammedov and his government cannot be blamed.
At the start of this year, Turkmenistan lost the second of what were once three gas customers when Turkmen authorities demanded back payments from Iran and cut off gas supplies to that southern neighbor, almost exactly one year after Russia’s Gazprom said it was canceling its contract for Turkmen gas. Turkmenistan’s only customer now is China, a country that has loaned Turkmenistan billions of dollars to develop its gas industry and now expects some of the Turkmen gas it is receiving in repayment for those loans.
Anceschi said the Turkmen government does bear responsibility for failing to act in the face of all the negative economic indicators.
"The economy has been unchanged and this is no longer sustainable," Anceschi explained, adding, "There will have to be a point at which someone in Ashgabat starts telling the president that change needs to come, otherwise the whole house just falls."
But with no solutions in sight, the Turkmen people have instead been treated to state television covering events such as "Berdymukhammedov...driving around in his pickup truck, driving to the shepherds in Akhal region [to campaign]," Yusupov noted.
Clement said the campaign and the election are not a complete waste of time.
"I do think that it’s worth pointing out that the election process in and of itself is an important stage in a country’s path, and if they’re to progress in any way, this kind of activity needs to be normalized," she said, sounding a possibly optimistic note for the future.
Listen to this week's Majlis podcast to hear more about these issues in greater detail and to explore other aspects of Turkmenistan’s 2017 presidential election, the reasons for it, and what might come next.
Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to the Majlis on iTunes.