Turkmenistan’s authoritarian leader has paved the way for potential lifelong rule, signing off on constitutional amendments that will allow him to run in future presidential elections regardless of his age.
The amendments, signed by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov after approval by the rubber-stamp parliament and the Council of Elders on September 14, scrap a rule that barred anyone over the age of 70 from presidential ballots in the tightly controlled Central Asian country.
They also extend future presidential terms to seven years from the current five.
Gas-rich Turkmenistan is one of the most isolated countries in the world and has never held an election that was deemed fair and democratic by monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Rights groups say dissent is not tolerated, government critics are routinely jailed or placed in psychiatric hospitals, and the country has no independent media.
The 70-year age ceiling was the only legal obstacle preventing Berdymukhammedov, 59, from running for office as long as he lives. The former Soviet republic’s constitution places no limit on the number of terms he can serve.
A dentist by training and a former deputy prime minister, Berdymukhammedov was appointed president by Turkmenistan’s security council in an opaque process following the death of eccentric autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov in December 2006. He is now serving his second term and is all but certain to win by a landslide if he runs, as expected, in the next presidential vote in 2017.
Berdymukhammedov, who led a commission that drafted the amendments, said after signing them that there will be “alternatives” in the election next year.
"Three political parties will participate in them -- the Democratic party, Agrarian party, and the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs," he said in a televised speech.
Turkmenistan is the second country in former Soviet Central Asia to amend its constitution this year to strengthen the president’s grip on power and potentially extend his rule.
Tajikistan changed its constitution to allow President Emomali Rahmon -- who has been in power since 1992 -- to run for an unlimited number of terms.
Tajikistan also lowered the minimum age for presidential candidates from 35 to 30, a move that would enable Rahmon’s 28-year-old son Rustam to run for president in a 2020 election.
Adoption of the amendments in Turkmenistan came after the autocrat who ruled neighboring Uzbekistan since before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Islam Karimov, was declared dead by the government on September 2 following a stroke.
The president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaev, has been in power since the Soviet era and there is no limit to the number of terms he can serve.