Clare Nuttall in Astana -
Turkmenistan officially shed its single-party state tag on August 22, as a new political party was launched. Voters now have two parties backed by the country's authoritarian president for whom to vote.
The Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs was launched on August 22, ending the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan's two decade dominance of politics in the Central Asian country since independence. Although Turkmenistan is now no longer an official single-party state, the fact that the second party was created on President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov's orders suggests the new party is unlikely to signal any real change in the country's authoritarian political scene.
Berdymukhamedov, who has led the Democratic Party since his predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov's death in 2006, first broached the subject of creating a multi-party state in 2010, when he proposed that a Peasants Party should be set up to support agricultural reforms. Legislation to allow new political parties to be created was proposed later that year, but the new law was carefully designed to prevent genuine opposition activists from forming a party.
At the same time, presidential candidates have to be resident in Turkmenistan, which automatically rules out leading opposition figures, who are necessarily in exile.
In January 2012, the parliament unanimously approved the final legislation, paving the way for more parties to be launched in what until now has been the only single-party state in the former Soviet Union. Two months later, Turkmenistan's Association of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs formed an organising committee, and placed an advertisement in Rysgal newspaper inviting people to join.
Meanwhile, discussion in Ashgabat about the formation of a Peasants Party to support agricultural reforms continues. Deputy Prime Minister Sapardurdy Toylyev announced in March that an agrarian party will be set up.
It is not yet clear what role the new Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs will play in Turkmen politics. Berdymukhamedov, unlike Niyazov, has tried to give Turkmenistan at least the sheen of a move towards democracy, but there have been few signs that genuine political pluralism will be allowed.
In cointrast to Niyazov, who declared himself president for life in 1999, Berdymukhamedov allowed seven candidates to stand against him in February's presidential elections. He was, however, re-elected with 97% of the vote, in an election so flawed from the outset that observers from the OSCE declined to even travel to Turkmenistan to monitor proceedings.
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