Turkmenistan's acting president said yesterday that a date for elections to replace the ex-Soviet republic's late long-ruling dictator will be set on Tuesday.
Acting President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov promised the polls would be democratic. However, the presidential candidates will be nominated, and there was no indication that the one-party state intends to introduce full democracy after long-entrenched authoritarian rule.
President Saparmurat Niyazov, 66, died from heart failure on Thursday after 21 years at the helm of the gas-rich nation.
His sudden death prompted predictions yesterday of a power struggle inside the ex-Soviet republic and a no less fierce contest among major powers coveting the nation's natural gas deposits.
Niyazov held absolute power and created an elaborate cult around himself after the nation of 5 million became independent with the 1991 Soviet collapse.
The date of the next presidential polls will be set by the People's Council, the country's highest legislative body, at a session scheduled for Tuesday, Berdymukhamedov said. His decree also said that on Tuesday the People's Council will consider "`candidates nominated for the president's post."
Presidential elections were last held in 1992, and Niyazov won with 95.5 percent of the vote.
Yesterday's newspapers, which are all state-controlled, were fully devoted to Niyazov's death, carrying front-page photographs of him and reaction and condolences from citizens and companies.
"Our hearts are overfilled with sorrow," "Feeling the pain of a loss," "An irreplaceable loss," said headlines in the official Neutral Turkmenistan newspaper.
State-run TV broadcasted funeral music, as it had all day on Thursday following the announcement that Niyazov had died of a heart attack. New Year's decorations were gone from the streets and black ribbons attached to flags.
All restaurants, cafes and liquor shops were closed throughout the country.
Weddings were ordered to be postponed until the end of the national mourning period on Dec. 30.
But beneath the outward calm, there is a gaping power vacuum waiting to be filled, left by the death of a man who declared himself president for life and ruled like an absolutist king in a country that is of growing geopolitical interest to major powers such as China, Russia and the US.
Turkmenistan not only has massive gas reserves of its own, but is positioned as a key link in the energy corridor the US wants to build from Central Asia, across the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus and to Western markets.
"His death has launched a vicious fight for power in Turkmenistan and, what is more important, a new stage of struggles between Russia, China, the European Union and other interested parties for Turkmen gas," the respected Kommersant daily wrote in Moscow.
The EU on Thursday called for the restoration of democracy in Turkmenistan in a statement that offered no condolences.
"We expect the succession process to be carried out according to the Constitution and the rule of law," the statement read.
US President George W. Bush expressed his condolences on Thursday, saying: "We look forward to continuing to expand our relations with Turkmenistan, to a bright future for that country and to a government that provides justice and opportunity for its people."
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