Berdymukhamedov tightens his grip on Turkmenistan

By bne IntelliNews February 14, 2012

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Turkmenistan's incumbent President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has been re-elected with 97.14% of the vote in the February 12 elections, according to preliminary results released by the Central Election Commission (CEC). The extent of the victory confirms the Turkmen have a second "president for life," and reform remains a distant hope.

Victory for Berdymukhamedov was a foregone conclusion in Turkmenistan's Soviet-style election, where no genuine opposition figures were able to stand.

The other seven candidates running were all either government officials or managers at state owned enterprises and collective farms. The runner-up was Energy and Industry Minister Yarmukhammet Orazgulyev, who took just 1.2% of the vote. The CEC has not yet announced how many votes the remaining candidates got, but is expected to make a formal announcement after all votes cast in overseas polling stations have been counted.

The CEC reported that almost all Turkmenistan's 3m registered voters marked their ballot papers, and that the overall turnout was 96.28%. Figures ranged from 94.2% in the capital Ashgabat to as high as 96.94% in the Mary region.

Berdymukhamedov's victory is only slightly smaller than that of his predecessor Saparmurad Niyazov, the self-styled "Turkmenbashi" or "leader of all the Turkmens", who announced in 1992 that he had taken over 99% of the vote. Niyazov was later elected "president for life" - a post he held until his sudden death in 2005.

The actual voting figures for the February 12 election are almost impossible to calculate. Whilst heavy pressure is put on Turkmenistan's citizens to turn out, many Ashgabat residents told a bne correspondent that they would not bother casting their vote. "There's no point," one said. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which usually monitors elections in the former Soviet Union, declined to send a formal observer mission to Turkmenistan, saying it would not "add value" since voters were unable to exercise their democratic right.

A CIS observer mission did observe the elections, and gave a typically favourable report. Speaking at a press conference in Ashgabat on February 13, mission chief Sergei Lebedev said that the elections had been "well organized and open, and offered broad-based alternatives", state news agency TDH reported. Lebedev added that shortcomings identified by observers were "inconsequential in nature, mostly technical."

Given Berdymukhamedov's iron grip of the political scene in Turkmenistan, few, if any, changes are expected following his re-election, despite some recent amendments to political legislation. Like other Central Asian leaders, the president is believed to have been closely watching events in the Middle East, and changes to the electoral system - including new rules allowing opposition parties to be formed - are believed to be a response to the Arab Spring.

Lilit Gevorgyan, Russia/CIS analyst at IHS Global Insight, believes that a similar revolution in Turkmenistan "can be safely ruled out for a number of reasons", citing the lack of a developed civil society or middle class, Turkmenistan's extreme isolation including the country's prohibitively expensive internet access, and the use of oil and gas revenues to keep down the cost of living.

Although Berdymukhamedov has made some superficial political changes, there has been little real impact, as demonstrated by the latest elections. Despite the opening of the field to eight candidates, none of those standing were genuine opposition activists. Highly restrictive rules also mean that no opposition parties have yet been formed, despite now having the legal right to do so.

"There is little hope that the newly re-elected Turkmen leader will opt for reforms in his second term," writes Gevorgyan. "There are no prospects of decentralising political power in the country; both legislative and executive branches will remain firmly under Berdymukhamedov's control. His main focus will be on developing the energy sector, diversifying energy export routes and dealing with inter-elite rivalry."

The former dentist, who went on to become Niyazov's health minister, has taken a more pragmatic and open approach to the economy than his predecessor, opening negotiations with EU leaders who are keen to get access to Turkmenistan's gas reserves. His rule has also seen the opening of the Central Asia-China gas pipeline, which pumps gas - mainly Turkmen - to the Chinese border. Talks are also underway with southern neighbours over the planned Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline.

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