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'Expect No Change': Turkmen Voters React To Berdymukhammedov's 'Serdar Election'

Serdar Berdymukhammedov, the son of Turkmenistan's president, seems to be a shoo-in to succeed his father in an upcoming election. (file photo)
Serdar Berdymukhammedov, the son of Turkmenistan's president, seems to be a shoo-in to succeed his father in an upcoming election. (file photo)

ASHGABAT -- There is little enthusiasm in Turkmenistan for the March 12 presidential election in the tightly controlled Central Asian country as they say the outcome won't bring any real changes to their lives.

And in Turkmenistan -- which has never held a free and fair election since gaining independence 30 years ago -- no one doubts that the vote is a mere formality for authoritarian President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to hand the presidency to his son, Serdar.

“People call it the 'Serdar election,'” one Ashgabat resident said, adding: “nobody is expecting anything positive from it and nobody is interested. Nothing will change in the country.”

The early election was announced on February 11 when Berdymukhammedov, 64, told an extraordinary meeting of the upper chamber of parliament, the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council), that he intended to step aside so that political power can be turned over to "young leaders."

An official photo of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (right) with his son, Serdar.
An official photo of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (right) with his son, Serdar.

Three days later, Serdar Berdymukhammedov was nominated as a presidential candidate. It came as no surprise to many Turkmen as rumors had been swirling for a year that Berdymukhammedov planned to transfer power to his son.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov turned 40 in September, the minimum age required under the constitution to be president.

“Everyone knows that this election is all about bringing Serdar to power. People have known and expected this since last September,” a Lebap Province resident told RFE/RL. “On the day when the Halk Maslahaty meeting took place, people were already saying that the election was going to be announced,” he added.

Several Lebap residents and others spoke on condition of anonymity because authorities in the secretive country don’t tolerate criticism.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov, who currently serves as deputy prime minister, has held several high-ranking positions in recent years.

Gas-Rich But Dirt-Poor

The majority of Turkmen don’t believe that he would significantly change his authoritarian father’s policies or do something to improve people’s lives in the gas-rich but impoverished country.

Berdymukhammedov, who took power in late 2006, introduced a few symbolic changes in the first years of his presidency -- expanding people’s access to the Internet and reopening village hospitals and libraries that had been closed down by his eccentric predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.

But analysts say he didn’t bring any real or meaningful reforms.

Under Berdymukhammedov, ordinary people’s living standards plummeted despite the country holding vast energy resources. Poverty, skyrocketing unemployment, and rabid corruption are widespread. Turkmenistan has also faced very serious food shortages and the country has experienced a severe reduction in its population in recent years as people seek a better life elsewhere.

“Turkmen don’t want political power to remain in the hands of the Berdymukhammedov family,” a resident of Mary Province said. "People believe the situation in the country will worsen further if someone from this family becomes president.”

An Ashgabat resident said that “people’s main concern today is how to put food on the table…and they know the situation won’t change after the election, that’s why everyone is completely indifferent to the vote.”

Serdar Berdymukhammedov was nominated by the ruling Democratic Party. The two other registered parties in Turkmenistan are the Agrarian Party and the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, both loyal to the government, meaning there is no official political opposition.

Critics, independent journalists, and activists in Turkmenistan have been imprisoned or forced into self-exile.

The Agrarian Party has nominated Agajan Bekmyradov, the Mary governor, as its candidate. Analysts say his place on the ballot is designed to make the election appear to be competitive.

'Alternative Election'

Turkmen opposition activists outside the country criticized the government for rushing the election to prevent real opponents from being able to try to take part.

“Authorities did it on purpose to leave potential candidates [who are not backed by the government] with no time to register or campaign,” said Murad Kurbanov, the leader of the unregistered opposition party Democratic Choice of Turkmenistan.

“Everything was arranged so that no one else could join the race. It will not be an election, it’s the appointment of the president,” said Kurbanov, who lives in self-exile.

His party is planning to nominate its own candidate and conduct a symbolic “alternative presidential election” online. It calls on the Turkmen people to vote via social media and messaging applications.

“We will add Serdar Berdymukhammedov to the list of candidates and will show the world who will win the alternative election,” Kurbanov told RFE/RL.

Turkmen activists abroad claim authorities in Turkmenistan plan to reduce the number of polling stations as a part of restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic. People with expired passports are prohibited from casting ballots and they don’t have enough time to renew their documents.

Turkmenistan has also barred its citizens living abroad from voting in the election.

Dursoltan Taganova, a leading Turkmen activist in Turkey, said that “a president elected under these [unlawful] measures will effectively be illegitimate.”

Former Turkmen political prisoner and government critic Geldy Kyarizov, who lives in Europe, has announced that he wants to run for president to try to end the autocratic rule of the Berdymukhammedov family.

In an appeal shared on YouTube on February 14, Kyarizov called on the Turkmen people "to unite” to defeat the political dynasty Berdymukhammedov is trying to form.

“We must be together to fight this dictatorship and tyranny from all directions," Kyarizov said.

It’s highly unlikely, however, that the former political prisoner will be allowed to return to Turkmenistan and register as a candidate.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondents.

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