(FILES) This file photo taken on May 05, 2016 shows Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (C) waving to the media during the starting ceremony of a 500-day nationwide horse race at the historical site of Nisa just outside Ashgabat in preparation for the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games. Some nine candidates will be on the ballot for a presidential poll in reclusive Turkmenistan on February 12, but only one of them — incumbent autocrat Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov — stands a chance of winning.
Igor SASIN / AFP
Citizens of Turkmenistan went to the polls Sunday for a presidential vote expected to further tighten strongman Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s hold over the gas-rich Central Asian country.
The turnout in the country of over 5 million people exceeded 74 percent in the first six hours of voting, the Central Election Commission said.
Berdymukhamedov, 59, faces eight other candidates including low-level regional officials, the director of a government-owned oil refinery and a representative of a state agribusiness complex.
But these candidates are viewed as token opponents for the former dentist and health minister who took power following the death of predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006.
Casting his vote at a school in the capital Ashgabat on Sunday morning, the president said the vote would decide “the fate of the people for the coming seven years”.
The autocrat was accompanied by family members including his son, who was elected as an MP last year.
“If I am elected then our policies aimed at improving the welfare of the people will continue, Berdymukhamedov said.
Last year Berdymukhamedov signed off on constitutional changes that paved the way for his lifelong rule by stripping away upper age limits for presidential candidates.
Another change lengthened presidential terms from five to seven years.
Voters in Ashgabat overwhelmingly said they were backing Berdymukhamedov.
“I voted for the first time, and chose our president,” said Zokhra, an 18-year old student decked out in bright red national dress who was voting at her university.
“We are deciding our future,” said Zokhra, who was presented with one of Berdymukhamedov’s books and a bunch of flowers by officials after she cast her vote.
One-sided votes are typical in Central Asia, a Muslim-majority ex-Soviet region politically close to Russia and China, where reigning presidents are usually expected to die in power.
“These regimes have a logic of their own and they very much follow that logic,” said Annette Bohr, an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia programme at the Chatham House think tank.
Turkmenistan’s regime is “even more repressive and personalist” than those found in neighbouring Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Bohr said.
“Berdymukhamedov is predictable in that he will do what he has to do in order to perpetuate that regime.”
– Leadership cult –
Like Turkmenistan’s first president Niyazov, who renamed months after family members and wrote a “book of the soul” that was compulsory in schools, Berdymukhamedov has presided over a flowering leadership cult.
Both men are honoured by golden statues in Ashgabat, where natural gas wealth is flaunted in lavish, grandiose white marble architecture, even as other parts of the country suffer poverty.
Berdymukhamedov is officially known as the country’s “Protector” and has written poetry and books on topics from tea to horses.
He is a keen equestrian but fell off his horse after winning a race in 2013 in a incident captured by spectators on video but hushed up by state media.
New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch said ahead of the polls that Berdymukhamedov has taken “a few modest steps to reverse some of Niyazov’s damaging policies” but has continued some of his “most serious abuses.”
Ahead of the vote, “voters cannot express their views about all candidates in an open manner and without fear,” the group said.
Turkmenistan is set to host the Asian Indoor Games in September and Reporters Without Borders warned Friday that the handful of independent journalists in the country are “being subjected to an unprecedented crackdown” ahead of the showpiece event.
Although Turkmenistan sits on the world’s fourth largest natural gas reserves, it has failed to diversify its economy and remains heavily reliant on exports to China.
At the beginning of 2015 the government devalued the manat currency by 19 percent, while Berdymukhamedov has warned of the need to raise tariffs for water, gas and electricity, which were all free under Niyazov.