Turkmenistan's authoritarian President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is set for a second term in office after the February 12 elections. The result is a foregone conclusion and will change little or nothing in the country, which is one of the most tightly controlled and secretive in the world.
The other seven candidates who have been allowed to stand for office are all either government officials - they include water resources minister Annageldy Yazmyradov and energy and industry minister Yarmuhammet Orazgulyev - or executives at state-owned enterprises.
Unlike his predecessor, the late but unlamented Saparmurad Niyazov, who was elected unopposed in 1992 and voted president for life seven years later, Berdymukhamedov has sought to give an illusion of choice in Turkmenistan's elections. Five rival candidates were allowed to stand for the presidency in 2007, and he has changed the law so that other parties can be founded to run against his Democratic Party of Turkmenistan in parliamentary elections.
Like Central Asia's other authoritarian rulers, Berdymukhamdeov has been closely watching events in the Middle East, and has taken steps to prevent a Turkmen Spring from happening. Security is reported to be high in Ashgabat, and Turkmenistan's border with Kazakhstan was closed ahead of the election.
The pre-election campaign period has been eerily quiet, with Berdymukhamedov conducting business as usual, and no visible campaigning by any of the other candidates. The only signs on the street that an election is imminent are the posters listing the eight candidates.
With a resounding victory for Berdymukahmedov already a certainty in the Soviet-style election, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), declined to send a formal observer mission to the elections. An OSCE delegation visited Turkmenistan on December 7-9, concluding that sending an observer mission would not "add value" given that "fundamental freedoms continue to be restricted, [and] that the choice between competing political alternatives is limited".
This leaves only observers from fellow former Soviet countries, which typically give favourable reports of the polls they monitor. Turkmenistan is no exception, with the Commonwealth of Independent States' observers mission commending the "atmosphere of openness and transparency" in the campaign period.
Berdymukhamedov has been president of Turkmenistan since February 2007, when elections were scheduled following the sudden death of Niyazov, the self-styled "Turkmenbashi" or "Father of all the Turkmens". Niyazov plunged Turkmenistan into international isolation and pursued a bizarre North Korean style personality cult.
Under Berdymukahmedov, there have been some steps to open up the country's political system, most notably the announcement that Turkmenistan would become a multi-party country. He was elected in 2007 with 89.23% of the vote against five other candidates - the first time more than one candidate had stood in Turkmenistan. However, these have been largely cosmetic, and in this election - as in the 2007 presidential election and 2008 parliamentary elections - there is no real challenge to his dominance of the political scene. Although other parties can now in theory be created in Turkmenistan, none have yet done so and the rules have been carefully crafted to prevent any genuine opposition party or candidate making a bid for power.
After a cautious start, Berdymukhamedov has started to dismantle the Turkmenbashi personality cult, most significantly with the removal of the massive Arch of Neutrality from central Ashgabat to the outer suburbs. The arch, which is topped with a 12 metre high revolving gold-plated statue of Niyazov, was the most prominent symbol of his regime. Although posters of Berdymukhamedov are increasingly ubiquitous, he has not gone to the same extremes as Niyzaov, who even named months of the year after himself and his mother.
Berdymukhamdeov has also ended Turkmenistan's international isolation, travelling widely and encouraging foreign firms to the country - though hey face a difficult working environment. His five-year rule has seen the opening of the Central Asia-China gas pipeline, which has boosted export revenues of the country's gas, and investment into the oil and gas sector is accelerating.
Despite Turkmenistan's appalling human rights record, Berdymukahedov has been welcomed abroad, including by EU leaders, because of Turkmenistan's massive oil and gas reserves. The country of just over 5m people has the world's fourth largest gas reserves, according to a study carried out by British consultancy Gaffney Cline Associates in 2008. The South Yolotan gas field is the second largest in the world.
Although the lip service is now paid to political openness, reports from the highly secretive country suggest that little has really changed. A 2011 report from watchdog Crude Accountability says that Berdymukahedov is a worse kleptocrat than his predecessor, and is appropriating the lion's share of the country's hydrocarbons revenues for himself, while poverty levels increase. "President Berdymukhamedov is now creating the foundation for future shocks to the state and society," says the report. Meanwhile, Freedom House's annual ranking of countries for political rights and civil liberties puts Turkmenistan among the nine "worst of the worst" countries. The election on Sunday is not going to change any of this.
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