Authoritarian leader to retain power in Turkmenistan

While Sunday's election was the first to allow opposition candidates to compete, the incumbent is expected to win by a huge margin.

Alexander Vershinin/AP
Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov waves to supporters after casting his ballot.

Nearly everyone in Turkmenistan showed up Sunday to vote in the presidential election in which the authoritarian incumbent was the overwhelming favorite against eight nominal opponents, according to the country's elections commission.

The commission said turnout exceeded 97 percent of the electorate for the election, the first to feature candidates from non-government parties on the central Asian country's ballot.

However, those parties still are largely submissive to the government. The eight other candidates in the race have expressed support for the government of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

Berdymukhamedov has been the overwhelmingly dominant figure in the former Soviet republic since late 2006, when he assumed power after the death of his eccentric predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.

As president, he has made small reforms to the single-party system imposed by Niyazov and eliminated some remnants of Niyazov's cult of personality, which included naming the months of the year after his family members and requiring schoolchildren to read his book of philosophical musings.

Some of Niyazov's more notoriously odd initiatives, such as banning opera and gold teeth, also were rolled back. Notably, Berdymukhamedov expanded public access to the internet and increased compulsory education from nine years to 12.

Under Berdymukhamedov, a law was adopted to allow non-government parties, although such parties are strictly vetted. The candidates nominally competing with Berdymukhamedov were allowed to meet with voters in theaters and cultural centers, but the encounters were not televised and no debates were held.

The country last year amended the Constitution to extend the presidential term to seven years from five, and eliminated the age limit of 70, effectively allowing Berdymukhamedov to be president for life.

Meanwhile, Berdymukhamedov has established a considerable personality cult of his own.

He is regularly shown on state media participating in a wide array of physical and competitive disciplines, such as horse-riding, racing cars, cycling, sailing and lifting weights. More recently, the president has taken up music with gusto, on occasion regaling wildly applauding crowds with performances on the guitar and piano.

Authorities in Turkmenistan have secured quiescence among the country's 5 million people through a combination of authoritarianism and generous welfare subsidies, such as free household gas and salt.

Some voters applauded the government for providing such services.

"Recently, my husband and I were in the hospital, and we were just delighted with the latest equipment that Turkmenistan medical centers are equipped with," Lyubov Muratova, 68, said at a polling station in the capital.

  But the state's ability to continue its largesse has been strained as the price for natural gas — Turkmenistan's only significant export commodity — has plummeted.

Until a few years ago, Turkmenistan could count on selling gas to China, Russia and Iran. Russia and Iran have recently stopped buying the fuel, however, following pricing disputes.

Turkmenistan is placing strong hopes on an ambitious plan to build a gas pipeline serving Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, but construction so far is underway only in Turkmenistan.

The economic crisis triggered by the collapse in gas revenue has led to devaluation of the national currency, the manat, and shortages of many staples, including cooking oil and sugar. Because of the intense secrecy the government imposes on economic data, there are few ways of being certain about the depth of the problem.

Although tight visa procedures make it difficult for outsiders to visit, Turkmenistan has built an elaborate resort complex on the Caspian Sea. Gas revenues spurred a spectacular construction boom in the capital Ashgabat, turning swaths of the city into gleaming white marble residential towers flanking wide, lightly trafficked thoroughfares.

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