Turkmen strongman leader set for easy election win

AP News
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Posted: Feb 12, 2012 1:47 PM
Turkmen strongman leader set for easy election win

At one polling station in Turkmenistan, loudspeakers blared out a song Sunday praising the nation's protector, which is how the president has now come to be known.

That sort of fulsome and pervasive adulation is why Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov will likely have brushed aside his seven opponents in a presidential election aimed largely at cementing his hold on power over the authoritarian Central Asian nation.

All of Berdymukhamedov's nominal opponents have made praise for his leadership a central plank of their campaigns.

Berdymukhamedov, a 54-year-old trained dentist, was elected to his first term with 89 percent of the vote in 2007, weeks after the sudden death of his eccentric, iron-fisted predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.

He came to power in the energy-rich former Soviet nation amid hopes of a gradual loosening of the closed political system, but those expectations have largely been dashed.

Turkmenistan is the subject of avid interest from the West, Russia and China for its natural gas reserves, which are estimated to be the fourth largest in the world.

While the field of contenders is broad, none of Berdymukhamedov's election rivals _ all of them government officials _ have explicitly asked Turkmens to vote for them.

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

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

Berdymukhamedov is a ubiquitous feature in the national media and no other candidate has anything remotely approaching his public profile.

"Our family is all voting for the current president. We haven't even heard of any of the other candidates," said a 21-year-old flower salesman, Toty, declining to give his surname as is common in a country where people can incur retribution for speaking to reporters.

Although salaries hover around $200 per month, many in Turkmenistan benefit from the highly subsidized economy, which has ensured an avoidance of the kind of unrest that has led to the overthrow of authoritarian leaders across the Middle East.

"I am voting for the current president. He has made transport practically free for retirees," said 76-year-old Ashgabat resident Ninel Belgisova.

Household gas, water and electricity are all provided free. Families also receive monthly rations of salt.

Berdymukhamedov has eschewed the personality cult that defined the rule of his predecessor, Niyazov, whose gold-leaf statues littered the country and who was known officially as Turkmenbashi _ the Father of All Turkmens.

But in a sign of Berdymukhamedov's increasingly immovable stature, state media have taken to referring to him as Arkadag _ Turkmen for "protector."

At one polling station at a bread factory, girls in traditional dress danced in a mild snowfall as speakers blared out a song hailing the Arkadag.

Berdymukhamedov cast his vote together with his father, Myalikguli, after whom a police unit was named earlier this month. That gesture was reminiscent of the Niyazov-era practice of naming streets and public organizations after the leader's parents.

The only element of suspense in Sunday's election is whether Berdymukhamedov will garner more or less support from the country's 3 million voters than he managed in 2007. Exit polls are banned.

Turnouts are traditionally very high in Turkmenistan, as in many former Soviet nations, where voters have been eager to avoid attracting unwanted official attention by snubbing the electoral process.

Official data showed relatively low voter turnout in the first half of the day. By the time polling stations closed, however, turnout had reached 96 percent.

Without independent scrutiny, there is no clear way of establishing whether official figures are accurate.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's election-monitoring arm said conditions were not suitable for a monitoring mission and that in any case Turkmenistan never invited its observers.

Election officials are expected to unveil preliminary results midday Monday.

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Peter Leonard in Almaty, Kazakhstan, contributed to this story.