Turkmen government to create "multi-party state"

By bne IntelliNews March 28, 2012

Clare Nuttall in Almaty -

Two new political parties are being set up in Turkmenistan as the government pursues plans to create a multi-party system, but no real changes to the country's oppressive political environment are expected to follow.

Deputy Prime Minister Sapardurdy Toylyev announced on March 27 that an agrarian party and an entrepreneurs party are being created. Turkmen state television showed Toylyev updating President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov about the plans, who said he is "serious" about developing democracy and a multi-party state in the country.

"Development of a multiparty system is important, given the large-scale transformations in public administration, revision of political mechanisms and rethinking of the role and place of social and civil institutions in the life of the country," Berdymukhamedov added.

Turkmenistan's authoritarian president has been talking since early 2010 about the need to move from a single-party to a multi-party system. Until now, the only party allowed to exist in the country has been the Democratic Party, which was formed immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Legislation allowing rival political parties to be created was adopted at Berdymukhamedov's instigation in 2010, but includes regulations that effectively prevent any genuine opposition emerging.

Like the other Central Asian leaders, Berdymukhamedov is believed to have been keeping a close eye on developments in the Middle East and North Africa over the last year, with a view to preventing the Arab Spring spreading as far as Turkmenistan. Although Kyrgyzstan has had two revolutions in the last seven years, there have been no serious challenges to the status quo in any of the other four Central Asian republics.

Berdymukhamedov has changed some aspects of government since the death of his predecessor Saparmurad Niyazov in 2006, opening up the country to more foreign investment. However, changes to the political system remain cosmetic, intended to do little more than give the impression that Turkmenistan is moving towards democracy.

Niyazov - who titled himself Turkmenbashi or "leader of all the Turkmens" - unashamedly pursued a Stalinist-style personality cult, and took close to 100% in the country's elections, before having himself made president for life in 1999.

Berdymukhamedov's approach has been slightly more subtle - though arguably no less authoritarian. He stood against no less than seven other candidates in the February 2012 presidential election, but every opposing candidate was employed by the government or state-owned enterprises. He was re-elected with 97% of the vote.

The president has also ordered the giant rotating gold statue of Niyazov to be moved from the centre of Ashgabat to the outskirts, and removed other reminders of Turkmenbashi's egomania.

Legislation allowing rival political parties to be created was adopted at Berdymukhamedov's instigation in 2010, but was greeted with scepticism by outside observers. The rules were carefully crafted to bar any genuine opposition figures from challenging. In particular, there are requirements for presidential candidates to be resident in Turkmenistan, which essentially debars all known active opposition figures, who are currently in exile.

NGO Freedom House's annual ranking of countries for political rights and civil liberties still puts Turkmenistan among the nine "worst of the worst" countries, and the launch of two new political parties is clearly being stage managed by the government in Ashgabat.

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