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Primer: Turkmenistan's Presidential Election

A billboard in the capital, Ashgabat, displays the portraits and biographies of the country's eight presidential candidates.
A billboard in the capital, Ashgabat, displays the portraits and biographies of the country's eight presidential candidates.
Turkmenistan is holding a presidential election on February 12. What do inquiring minds need to know?

What is the history of voting in independent Turkmenistan?

This is only the second presidential election in Turkmenistan's 20-year history as an independent state to feature more than one candidate. The first was held in February 2007, less than two months after the death of long-standing President Saparmurat Niyazov, better known as "Turkmenbashi."

After the death of the autocratic Niyazov, who was named "president for life" in 1999, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov was installed as acting president. Following a tweak to a constitutional provision banning an acting president from participating in a presidential election, Berdymukhammedov was allowed to run in the 2007 poll. He won by a landslide -- garnering 89 percent of the vote -- over a field of five other candidates. All, including Berdymukhammedov, belonged to the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan.

Who is in the running this time around?

Berdymukhammedov, who has completed his five-year term, now faces seven relatively unknown candidates. Seven other prospective contenders withdrew their names or failed to submit their documents on time and did not make the final cut.

Again, all the candidates are from the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, the country's only political party. This fuels the widespread belief that the election is basically a symbolic exercise. This is not unusual for the energy-rich country of some 5 million, which has no record of free and democratic elections.

In the run-up to the election, it has not been uncommon for Berdymukhammedov's challengers to actively encourage people to vote for the incumbent.

A campaign billboard displays a portrait of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in Ashgabat.
A campaign billboard displays a portrait of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in Ashgabat.
Berdymukhamedov is a 55-year-old former dentist who, upon taking office, initially took tentative steps to open up his isolated country. He reversed some of his predecessor's decrees, reopened rural hospitals, and gave the nation access to the Internet. He also invested a lot of time dismantling Turkmenbashi's cult of personality. But eventually he began introducing his own authoritarian polities and building his own cult of personality. During a military ceremony in 2010, Berdymukhammedov was bestowed the title "Arkadag," or "Protector."

Yarmuhammet Orazgulyyew, who is running on a populist platform that calls for protecting social services and raising salaries and living standards, oversees the Power and Industry Ministry. He has been portrayed as an energetic and experienced manager capable of developing the oil and gas and agricultural sectors.

Annageldi Yazmyradow, who heads the Water Management Ministry, has touted the need for clean drinking water for all. He has praised Berdymukhammedov's outstanding achievements.

Rejep Bazarow, deputy governor of the northern Dasoguz Province, was nominated by farm workers and has pledged to improve democracy based on Turkmen principles. He seeks to resolve water-resource issues in the region and to improve the agriculture sector.

Kakageldi Abdyllayew heads the Marygas directorate of the state gas company Turkmengaz. He has pledged to boost gas exports.

Gurbanmammet Mollanyyazow is the manager of Nebitgazabatlayys, the oil and gas repair department of the state oil concern Turkmennebit. He has pledged to continue current socioeconomic reforms, strengthen the economy, and to ensure future prosperity.

Saparmyrat Batyrow oversees a cotton mill in central Ahal Province. He has touted Turkmenistan's policy of neutrality as a model admired by the international community. He has made the development of the country's fuel and energy, agriculture, textile, transport, and tourism industries a priority.

Esendurdy Gayybow is the head of a construction company in Lebap Province in eastern Turkmenistan. He has praised achievements made by Turkmenistan in the social, economic, and political spheres, presumably under Berdymukhammedov's leadership.

Who will be monitoring the election?

Turkmenistan election officials have boasted that some 60 domestic and foreign observers will monitor the vote.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) said in January that it would not deploy observers in Turkmenistan to monitor the elections. ODIHR said it had not received an invitation from Turkmen authorities to send election observers.

ODIHR has sent a limited number of experts at the request of the OSCE office in Ashgabat. Turkmen media have reported that during meetings with Central Election Commission officials, ODIHR representatives were briefed on electoral reforms and efforts to strengthen democracy in the country.

An observers mission from the Commonwealth of Independent States, a Moscow-led regional grouping, praised the election campaign for providing "equal opportunities" for all candidates.

How has campaigning been conducted?

Turkmenistan's state-owned television channels gave airtime to each candidate to promote his election platform, but there were no television debates.

The seven candidates challenging Berdymukhammedov have traveled to the provinces to meet with voters. The meetings were closed to the general public and only a selected group of smartly dressed public sector workers and students were allowed to attend.

Berdymukhammedov dominated media coverage. Since coming to power, the president's daily activities have been a near-constant fixture on television reports, magazine covers, and newspaper front pages. Such coverage only intensified ahead of the election.

Written by Farangis Najibullah
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