The conduct of Turkmenistan's special presidential election offered no hint of the reform intentions voiced by Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the country's interim leader and the vote's likely winner. Election officials announced that almost 99 percent of eligible voters cast ballots on February 11. Opposition leaders derided the vote as thoroughly "stage-managed," and international observers criticized the election as a missed opportunity to make a goodwill gesture.
Turkmen officials billed the election as the first-ever multi-candidate vote for president in the country's post-Soviet history. Berdymukhammedov -- who was named interim president following the sudden death of former Turkmen dictator Saparmurat Niyazov in late December -- faced five challengers, all of them members of the ruling elite. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The official results are to be released February 13, with the new president to be inaugurated the following day.
Given the government's efforts to tightly control the campaign, no one doubts that Berdymukhammedov will be the one taking the oath of office on the February 14. "Much has been made of the fact that the vote was Turkmenistan's first multi-candidate presidential election. This is true, but it is simply a distraction," said Erika Dailey, director of the Turkmenistan Project at the New York-based Open Society Institute." The implausible reported turn-out [along with] the absence of free media or alternative candidates signal that the election itself is not a fresh start. It is history repeating itself." (EurasiaNet and the Turkmenistan Project operate under the auspices of OSI).
During the seven-week period between Niyazov's death and the special election, Berdymukhammedov spoke repeatedly about the need to implement changes, raising hopes that as president he would make a drastic departure from the deceased dictator's totalitarian-isolationist policy course. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The vote, however, was conducted in the best Soviet tradition, thus raising questions about the genuineness of Berdymukhammedov's reform pledges.
The Watan.ru website quoted a Turkmen opposition leader living in exile, Nurmuhammet Hanamov, as saying the "momentum of Soviet tradition" guided the election. "Authorities' methods have not changed markedly and therefore it is easy to predict the results," Hanamov said.
Avdy Kuliyev, another Turkmen political leader living abroad, called the vote a "stage-managed drama