Tue, Dec 21, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Turkmenistan sees dubious turnout in legislative election

IFFY RESULTS The government claimed a turnout of 76.88 percent in Sunday's elections, but officials were seen toting ballot boxes door to door

AGENCIES , Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Polling stations were nearly empty for parliament elections in Turkmenistan, forcing officials to carry ballot boxes door to door. But the government announced a nearly 80-percent turnout in the former Soviet republic, which is ruled by a one-time Communist boss who now is president-for-life.

The 131 candidates contesting parliament's 50 seats in Sunday's elections all represent the Central Asian country's only party, the Democratic Party led by President Saparmurat Niyazov, and public organizations.

Niyazov reduced parliament's role last year, stripping it of the right to make constitutional changes, and made the People's Council -- a hand-picked assembly of more than 2,000 top officials and elders headed by himself -- the country's highest legislative body. He uses the council to legitimize decisions.

All the candidates officially support Niyazov's policies and based their campaigns on promoting the ideas in his book, Rukhnama, which sets moral and spiritual guidelines for the country's citizens.

It said 76.88 percent of some 2.5 million voters had taken part, a striking contrast to a Soviet-style high of 99.6 percent in the previous vote in December 1999 -- and far more than the required 50 percent to make the vote valid.

However, polling stations in the capital, Ashgabat, were almost empty throughout the day and election officials were going from door to door with ballot boxes.

From early morning, authorities were knocking on people's doors to remind of the election. As an incentive, authorities prepared gifts for elderly and first-time voters, handing out items ranging from Niyazov's book to towels to notebooks.

"We have other things to worry about," said retiree Lyudmila, explaining why she didn't vote. "I didn't even know about any elections," she said.

A 70-year-old voter in Ashgabat said: "I don't know who to vote for. Does it matter? What do they [deputies] do for people?"

The government refused to invite foreign observers for Sunday's election, saying the polls' fairness will be ensured by 200 observers from the state-controlled National Institute of Democracy and Human Rights.

Children presented flowers to Niyazov and sang and danced for him at a polling station in Ashgabat where he voted in early morning, official media reported.

Niyazov, a former Communist boss, has been declared president-for-life by parliament.

Niyazov prefers to be called Turkmenbashi, or ``Father of all Turkmens,'' and his image adorns buildings across the country. His golden statue in Ashgabat rotates to always face the sun.

The leader has resisted moves toward democracy and economic reforms. He has isolated the country while cracking down on dissent since an alleged assassination attempt in 2002, in which he was unhurt.

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