By Dmitry Solovyov
ALMATY (Reuters) - Turkmenistan's President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov says Sunday's parliamentary election is a democratic milestone for his gas-rich nation, but critics say it merely slaps a veneer on what they call a repressive autocracy.
The 56-year-old leader wields virtually unlimited power and is officially nicknamed Arkadag, or The Patron, in his mainly Muslim Central Asian state of 5.5 million which holds the world's fourth largest reserves of natural gas.
Keen to burnish his image abroad as he seeks new gas export routes to bypass former imperial master Russia, he stepped down as leader of the ruling Democratic Party in August and ordered the founding of a second political party, also loyal to him.
"The December 15 election will herald a new stage of Turkmenistan's democracy," state television showed Berdymukhamedov telling a recent government meeting.
He promised democratic reforms when he took office in 2007 after the death of his despotic predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov.
Instead, his critics say, he has kept a firm grip on all branches of power, promoted his own personality cult and continued to stifle dissent in one of the most tightly controlled former Soviet states.
Formally, the vote will be Turkmenistan's first multi-party election since it gained independence when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. The Democratic Party, successor to the Soviet Communist Party, will contend with the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, as well as candidates from several state-sponsored public bodies.
But in reality, opposition is banned and human rights groups say several outspoken critics of the government have disappeared or been jailed. Torture is widely used on prisoners to elicit confessions and secure convictions in unfair trials, according to London-based rights group Amnesty International.
"Holding these elections will not address the atmosphere of total repression, denial of the basic human rights, and the all-permeating fear that has gripped society in Turkmenistan for years," John Dalhuisen, regional program director at Amnesty International, said in a statement.
Turkmen officials could not be reached for comment on this.
WEAK DEMOCRACY, STRONG GAS EXPORTS
None of the 283 candidates seeking seats in the 125-seat parliament, which routinely rubber-stamps all Berdymukhamedov's decisions, has run on an independent line. Their pictures are seen mainly at polling stations or on the pages of state-run papers.
Presenting their programs on state-run television, candidates toed Berdymukhamedov's line as they stood next to a large monitor featuring the strongman, who also holds posts of prime minister and commander of the armed forces.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has not observed previous elections in Turkmenistan, sent a 15-member mission to the country after an invitation from the authorities, and plans to issue recommendations for the government within two months of Sunday's poll.
In 2012 the Economist Democracy Index of 167 nations ranked Turkmenistan joint 161st with its neighbor Uzbekistan.
But Berdymukhamedov has managed to improve ties that had soured under his predecessor Niyazov between the West and the desert nation bordering Iran and Afghanistan.
The United States and the European Union, whose firms court Turkmenistan in the hope of developing its giant hydrocarbon riches, have supported alternative routes to export Turkmen gas to Europe and to Pakistan and India via Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, none of those pipelines have been built and China has fast supplanted Russia as the main importer of Turkmen natural gas.
In a display of Beijing's rising clout in energy-rich Central Asia, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Berdymukhamedov inaugurated in September the world's second-largest gas field, Galkynysh, which will feed China's growing energy consumption.
Berdymukhamedov, known for his passion for thoroughbred horses and racing cars, last year heralded what he calls "The Happiness and Might Epoch" for his countrymen, while double-digit economic growth is fuelled by rising gas export revenues.
A lack of political freedom and modest monthly wages of some $300 are supplemented by free gas, water and electricity, as well as by subsidized petrol and bread - a vestige of "The Golden Age" of Niyazov.
(Editing by Louise Ireland)