Turkmenistan's people, long under the omnipresent rule of the late president Saparmurat Niyazov, began voting yesterday for his replacement in an poll watched with great interest -- but mostly at a distance -- by Russia and the West.
Six candidates are on the ballot, but Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, the acting president, is widely considered the favorite. Although it is the first time Turkmens have had multiple candidates running for the presidency, none of the six constitute opposition. The country has only one legal political party.
Nonetheless, the willingness to allow more than one candidate and Berdymukhamedov's proposals for change have tantalized observers as hints that Turkmenistan is contemplating reform after two decades under Niyazov, who fostered an extensive personality cult.
"This is a step now in the development of your democracy," Goran Lennmarker, chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said in the capital, Ashgabat, on Saturday.
"You've had a very strong leader. Now this is a new step in your development," he said in remarks televised yesterday.
However, the OSCE is not sending an election-monitoring mission, nor is the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose grouping of former Soviet republics.
The elections commission said turnout as of midday was 66 percent -- crossing the 50 percent threshold for the election to be valid.
"Voting is going very actively. I've visited many polling stations. People are coming to vote by themselves," elections commission head Murad Karryyev told reporters.
In previous Turkmen elections it has been common practice for workplaces and universities to instruct their employees and students to go vote.
Many foreign journalists were denied visas to cover the election.
Shortly after midday, a group of locally accredited journalists who were being taken to polling stations by officials were told to go home and wait for official statements.
First-time voters were being given copies of the Rukhnama, a book of Niyazov's philosophical writings, which he made required reading in schools. Niyazov said the book would guarantee a diligent reader a place in heaven.
Turkmenistan is of substantial interest to Russia and the West because of its enormous natural gas reserves and its status as a stable, neutral country in a tense region. It borders both Afghanistan and Iran.
Exiled opposition figures have not been able to return to Turkmenistan since Niyazov's Jan. 21 death, and prospects seem remote for any postelection upheaval as happened in ex-Soviet Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in recent years.
Niyazov, who called himself Turkmenbashi (Father of All Turkmen), still dominates the country's psyche nearly two months after his death. At a polling station in Niyazov's hometown of Kipchak, his portrait was on all the walls, and copies of his poems and philosophical writings were on display.
Berdymukhamedov, by contrast, has kept a fairly low profile. He ceded his allotted television campaign time to the other candidates, state TV has shown only brief remarks by him and his photo has been rarely displayed in state newspapers.
He also startled observers with a series of remarks indicating a significant move away from Niyazov's tight control. He promised unrestricted Internet access for all Turkmens, support for entrepreneurship and a widening of educational opportunities.