Turkmenistan is conducting a presidential election on February 12. Eight competitors are running against the incumbent, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.
But if he looks like Berdymukhammedov, the person who's been hitting the campaign trail in the last week or so doesn’t much act like Berdymukhammedov.
First, let's take a brief look at the eight candidates in the race. (That’s a record for a Turkmen presidential election.) It's probably one of the only times you’ll ever hear about these folks.
They are: the deputy head of Mary Province, Jumanazar Annayev; the director of the Seidi oil refinery and member of parliament, Ramazan Durdyyev; the deputy head of the Dashoguz regional administration, Meretdurdy Gurbanov; the chief of the department of economy and development of the Akhal regional administration, Serdar Jelilov; the CEO of Garabogazsulfat, the production association of the Turkmenchemistry state concern, Suleimannepes Nurnepesov; the deputy chairman of the state food industry, Maksat Annanepesov; the candidate of the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, Bekmyrat Atalyev; and Agrarian Party candidate Durdygylych Orazov.
They will be splitting the 1.5 to 2 percent (I predict) of the votes Berdymukhammedov does not receive.
Which brings us to Berdymukhammedov.
Candidate Berdymukhammedov is generous, at least in clips aired on state television and reports in state media. On January 30, he was touring an area in Akhal Province and, with a big smile, gave what were said to be televisions to herders. (In the background is the cleanest yurt I've ever seen in the Kara-Kum desert.)
Technically, candidates are not allowed to give gifts to voters, but Turkmenistan’s Central Election Commission explained to RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, that Berdymukhammedov was giving the gifts as the country’s president, not as a candidate.
Berdymukhammedov has been seen on state television giving away copies of the dozens of books he has supposedly written to officials, or small gifts of money to women on International Women’s Day. (Beyond this, I cannot remember him giving any gifts to "average" citizens.)
A week earlier, Berdymukhammedov the president was in eastern Lebap Province, inspecting construction projects. Berdymukhammedov the candidate took a few minutes to meet with workers and during the meeting asked if everyone in the room had been to Turkmenistan’s Caspian coast resort area of Avaza. One man raised his hand to show he had not. Berdymukhammedov said he would send the man and his family to Avaza.
The trip was undoubtedly a gift from Berdymukhammedov the president, not the candidate.
While visiting with workers at a gas complex in Akhal Province on January 30, Berdymukhammedov, just an average guy at heart, gave the crowd what they were reportedly asking for and took the stage with guitar in hand to "perform" for the people.
This Berdymukhammedov is different from the Berdymukhammedov seen on state television earlier in January, who dismissed 14 deputy district chiefs, all for "shortcomings" in their work, and reprimanded dozens more officials. He fired Ashgabat Mayor Muradniyaz Abilov, calling him a "bastard."
In 2016, state television also showed Berdymukhammedov dismissing and reprimanding dozens of officials. On February 5, 2016, he dismissed the head of the presidential administration, Palvan Taganov, telling Taganov, "It is a great pity that you have failed to perform the duties entrusted to you," then ordering him to get out of the room "straight away."
And then, of course, there is this footage of Berdymukhammedov in 2011 ridiculing officials:
Berdymukhammedov’s active campaigning this time around -- and his "nice guy" act -- are probably just further proof of Turkmenistan’s economic crisis. Were times better in Turkmenistan, it is unlikely we would be seeing the smiling Berdymukhammedov seen on state television since late January.
We probably won’t see this new Berdymukhammedov after the election is over, either, when he'll be enjoying a new seven-year term in office.