The isolated Central Asian state of Turkmenistan votes on Sunday in elections expected to see Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov sail to a new term against only the most token opposition.
Berdymukhamedov, an ex-dentist turned top functionary who came to power after the death of his eccentric predecessor, former Turkmen president Saparmurat Niyazov, in 2006, made a show of throwing the elections open to the opposition, but this has not resulted in any genuine challenge.
A total of seven candidates are standing against Berdymukhamedov, but all are members of the obsequiously loyal Turkmen elite, including ministers appointed by the president and figures who have eulogized him in public.
Berdymukhamedov, nominated by the ruling Democratic Party, the union of war veterans, the womens’ association and the young people’s union, appears set to repeat his landslide victory of 2007 where he won over 89 percent of the vote.
“This trust I take as an acknowledgment of the positive results of the work I have started with my native people and the important work for fundamental reform of our state,” he said.
Berdymukhamedov has started cautious reform after the excesses of the notorious personality cult under Niyazov, reopening cinemas, theaters and research institutes that were shut down during his predecessor’s rule.
Western energy majors are competing with China to exploit Turkmenistan’s vast gas reserves while European firms are taking advantage of a construction bonanza in a multibillion US dollar building program in Ashgabat.
In July last year, Berdymukhamedov unexpectedly announced that the exiled opposition, which denounced him as a dictator, could take part in the elections. However, no one showed interest, fearing immediate arrest on arrival.
During his presidential campaign last month, he promised to “develop the political system, create new parties and organize independent media.”
Instead, Berdymukhamedov is running against figurehead candidates like Turkmen Energy and Industry Minister Yarmukhammet Orazgulyev or Kakageldi Abdyllayev, the chief executive of a subsidiary of state energy firm Turkmengaz.
Other token rivals include his water resources minister and the director of a cotton factory.
In an unusual step for any candidate in an election, one hopeful showered his supposed opponent Berdymukhamedov with praise in his campaign manifesto.
“In the Era of Rebirth, under the wise and respected leadership of the president, grandiose changes have taken place in the interests of every single person,” said Redzhep Bazarov, a local agriculture official.
The candidates published their pre-election programs in newspapers, but all are similar and none contain a word of criticism about the incumbent president.
Most of their pre-election meetings around the country have taken place in the main regional theaters adorned with portraits of a smiling Berdymukhamedov.
His promise in July to open the elections up to the opposition mysteriously came days after a series of blasts outside Ashgabat blamed on a fireworks depot fire that left 15 dead.
However, opposition leaders in exile said a munitions depot had blown up, killing 200 people in a massive catastrophe.