Turkmens to vote in one-horse race

AP News
Posted: Feb 09, 2012 5:49 AM
Turkmens to vote in one-horse race

The president of energy-rich Turkmenistan is an avid horseman, but he is unlikely ever to win a race as easily as this Sunday's election.

Turkmens vote after a surreal presidential campaign that has seen Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov's seven rivals offer him glowing endorsements.

He was elected president of this former Soviet nation in 2007, weeks after the sudden death of the eccentric and iron-fisted Saparmurat Niyazov _ the self-styled Turkmenbashi, or father of all Turkmens.

Early into Berdymukhamedov's rule, he hinted at a possible softening of the suffocating authoritarian system, but instead Turkmenistan has seen the gradual installation of a new, albeit less extravagant, personality cult.

Western nations have made only muted calls for reform for fear of thwarting attempts at securing access to the desert nation's vast natural gas reserves.

Berdymukhamedov has called for the elections to be held in a spirit of celebration and said they "should reflect the richness of the spiritual world of the Turkmens."

Campaign literature has been marked by a startling uniformity of thought. None of Berdymukhamedov's opponents _ all of them government officials _ has explicitly asked Turkmens to vote for them and have instead praised the president's accomplishments.

Leaflets for Water Resources Minister Annageldi Yazmyradov's campaign are typical.

"In this era of great achievements, the Turkmen people, every single citizen of our country, fully endorses all the transformations taking place," reads one line.

The same material approvingly refers throughout to the "Epoch of the New Revival and Transformation" _ an expression commonly used by state media to describe the years of Berdymukhamedov's rule.

Authorities have attempted to convey the semblance of an actual campaign.

Candidates have addressed rallies in packed halls across the country against the backdrop of large posters of Berdymukhamedov.

The only person doing what could pass for genuine campaigning has been the president himself. Berdymukhamedov has been crisscrossing his country of 5 million people unveiling major building projects. Plans include the construction of multiple wedding halls, known as Palaces of Happiness, and also bazaars, five-star hotels and major roads in every provincial center in Turkmenistan.

The president has also promised to build mosques large enough to accommodate up to 3,000 people in the port city of Turkmenbashi and in the ancient northern town of Konye-Urgench.

Berdymukhamedov, a 54-year-old who trained as a dentist, is a dour personality given to bursts of bad temper, as displayed in a lengthy video posted on YouTube last year showing him remonstrating cowering civil servants. A U.S. diplomatic cable obtained by the WikiLeaks whistle-blowing site described him as having a "vain and conservative personality."

Nonetheless, the only element of suspense in the race is whether Berdymukhamedov will score more or less than the 89 percent of the vote he managed in 2007.

For all of Turkmenistan's isolation, the government is eager to impress on its subjects that the elections will enjoy some international legitimacy.

The Altyn Asyr state television channel this week trumpeted a visit from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's election-monitoring arm. The report cited the visiting delegation as saying every effort had been made to make the election campaign free and fair.

Jens-Hagen Eschenbacher, spokesman for the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, described the news report as "a blatant fabrication."

Indeed, OSCE/ODIHR has said conditions were not suitable for a monitoring mission and in any case Turkmenistan never invited its observers.


Leonard contributed from Almaty, Kazakhstan.