Given that incumbent president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was reelected five years ago with 97 percent of the vote, Sunday’s presidential election in Turkmenistan was not carrying a whole deal of suspense.
However, for the first time under Berdymukhamedov’s decade-long repressive rule, opposition parties have been allowed to participate in a presidential election. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan was also gripped by an unprecedented crisis. Still few expected the 59-year-old to face real competition.
Berdymukhamedov has not only controlled the media but he has also had the power to appoint and dismiss local and national government representatives as well as members of the Central Commission for Elections and Referenda.
“Turkmenistan has never held a free and fair election and this one is no exception,” Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement released this week. “Genuine elections are impossible where authorities maintain tight control over all aspects of public life, violating basic rights relating to freedom of the media, expression, and civil society.”
Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov speaks to the media with German Chancellor Angela Merkel (not pictured) following talks at the Chancellery, Aug. 29, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
The election in 2012 was described as an example of “faux democracy” by an expert at the London-based Chatham House policy institute. At least on the surface, Berdymukhamedov moved to open up the process by allowing two new parties to form.
Thus he will face competition this time around from Agrarian Party candidate Durdygylych Orazov and Bekmyrat Atalyev, representing the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. The other six candidates were all head of departments within the government.
Last time the only international observation mission overseeing the election was the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States. Its report ahead of the upcoming election stated that it had been conducted “in the spirit of competition.”
The end of Berdymukhamedov’s time in office, however, appeared some way off. Last September, the Constitution was amended, increasing presidential term from five to seven years and removing the 70-year age limit for candidates, effectively enabling Berdymukhamedov to be president for life.
As well as imposing tight restrictions on information and freedom of expression, Berdymukhamedov has created a cult of personality. Two weeks ago he provided a rendition of a song he had apparently written to a group of workers. He has also been a regular participant in, and winner, of races on horseback, bicycles and in cars.
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