Presidential elections in Turkmenistan
The authoritarian Central Asian state's leader, who assumed power in 2006 after the death of eccentric President Saparmurat Niyazov, faces seven loyal members of the elite on the ballot, none of whom dared to criticise him during the campaign. In turn Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is predicted to win vote with critics branding rival candidates as token challengers
Tuesday, 14 February 2012, by HRH Oslo, Based on Reuters, Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International Information
Voting took place in a festive atmosphere with bands playing traditional music while food and even presents were handed to voters, the AFP news agency reported. In addition to being the president, the 54-year-old Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is also a prime minister, commander of the armed forces and chairman of the only political party in Turkmenistan.
Soviet style elections
Few citizens recognise anyone on the ballot paper other than the president, whose portrait - smiling and dressed in business suit and tie - can be found in parks, streets, offices and hotel lobbies across the desert nation of 5.5 million people. Berdymukhamedov's challengers, including government ministers and the director of a state-run textile factory, have lauded the president in the run-up to the vote. One of the candidates, local agriculture official Redzhep Bazarov, even showered Berdymukhamedov with praise in his election manifesto.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has not sent observers, after deciding during a pre-vote mission to the country in December that its presence would not "add value" given limited freedoms and lack of political competition.Voting took place in a festive atmosphere with bands playing traditional music and food and even presents handed to voters, said an AFP correspondent who was taken on a tour of polling stations by the election commission. Shary, a 20-year-old taxi driver who gave only his first name, told the Reuters news agency that he did not need to visit a polling station because election officials would bring a ballot box to his home. "They will come with a ballot box and I will vote, although nothing depends on me," he said.
Turkmenistan has issued no invitation for Western observers to assess the elections on a full-scale mission, while human rights workers and journalists have also been denied access to the country. The energy-rich country is promoting the elections as a new step in a programme of democratic reforms, but Berdymukhamedov's promise last summer to include genuine opposition in the polls appears not to have been fulfilled. About three million people have the right to vote across the vast former Soviet state that extends from the Caspian Sea to Afghanistan and is one of the most secretive nations in the world.
Berdymukhamedov has started cautious reform after the excesses of the notorious personality cult under Niyazov, which extended to installing a golden statue of himself in Ashgabat that rotated to always face the sun. In a half decade that Turkmenistan calls the "Era of Rebirth", Berdymukhamedov had reopened cinemas, theatres and research institutes and started to encourage foreign companies to help exploit its energy reserves. But critics say the drive has been little more than window dressing and that he still presides over an autocratic one party state that brutally cracks down on dissent. "Serious human rights violations such as torture and ill-treatment continue to be committed in detention facilities and severe restrictions remain on freedom of movement and expression, political activism, faith and many other fundamental rights," Amnesty International said in a statement ahead of the polls.
Elections went as “planned”
Figures coming out of the Central Election Commission seemed to bear out these firsthand impressions. By midday, 48 percent of voters had turned out - a fairly meager number compared with the 66 percent at the same stage during the last elections. Happily for the authorities, those numbers rapidly shot up by the end of the day to reach 96.3 percent. Still, a bit disappointing when you think turnout was a dizzying 98.7 percent in 2007.
The only international delegation of observers in town are from the Commonwealth of Independent States, a club of post-Soviet countries, who have notoriously given clean bills of health to pretty suspect votes, so there is little real way of gauging the extent of any possible electoral fraud. There were also, of course, over 2,000 government observers overseeing the vote under the auspices of the Presidential National Democracy and Rights Institute. Within hours of the polls closing, workers quickly mobilized to remove all campaign posters. On Monday morning in Ashgabat, it is almost as if it never really happened at all.
International NGOs see no progress
Amnesty International, in a statement two days before the election, said it was concerned about torture and ill-treatment in Turkmen prisons, as well as "severe restrictions" on freedom of movement and expression, political activism and faith."Turkmenistan remains closed to international scrutiny by choice," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia deputy program director. The organization said its repeated requests to visit the country had gone unanswered.
Only North Korea and Eritrea ranked lower in the 179-country press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. Human Rights Watch said in its latest annual report that media and religious freedoms were subject to "draconian restrictions."Turkmenistan has 2.9 million registered voters, slightly more than half of the total population. Berdymukhamedov won 89 percent of the vote in the last presidential election.
HRH Oslo, Based on Reuters, Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International Information