A theme song for Turkmenistan’s presidential election on February 12 could be Aretha Franklin’s classic “Who’s Zoomin’ Who.” On the surface, the election offers citizens a choice of eight candidates, including the incumbent, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. But experts say Berdymukhamedov is merely using the electoral process as a smokescreen to gauge the level of discontent with his authoritarian regime.
Berdymukhamedov presides over what various watchdog groups characterize as one of the most repressive states on earth. Since coming to power in late 2006, he has kept a tight lid on Turkmen society. And in a manner befitting a world-class despot, he has adopted an honorific title – Arkadag, a Turkmen term for “protector.”
Despite his authoritarian image, Berdymukhamedov has gone to great lengths to create the appearance of a competitive election, populating the campaign with not just one, but seven presidential challengers -- an eclectic array of obscure government placemen and out-of-nowhere, state-controlled plant managers. In addition, Berdymukhamedov has trumpeted an initiative to open up Turkmenistan’s political system, which currently permits only one political party, the paradoxically named Democratic Party, to operate openly.
A law on political parties, adopted in mid-January, would seem to lay the groundwork for a multi-party political playing field down the road. “Citizens of Turkmenistan are accorded equal rights and equal opportunities are created for the establishment of political parties and for free participation in their activities,” a provision of the law reads, as published in the official government newspaper Neytralnyy Turkmenistan.
But espite all the rhetoric about democratizing, it would be foolhardy to believe Berdymukhamedov has undergone some kind of political conversion experience. He’s as committed as ever to authoritarianism. And with the examples of the Arab Spring, as well as the developing civil war in Syria, lurking in the back of his mind, he wants to shroud his clenched-fist system with the trappings of democracy.
“Even though Turkmenistan remains very isolated from what is happening in the rest of the world, all the presidents in Central Asia are concerned by the 2011 Arab Spring,” said Sebastien Peyrouse, a senior research fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and author of the book Turkmenistan: Strategies of Power, Dilemmas of Development. “They want to avoid such events in their own countries by trying to make their people believe that things are changing and that their leadership is opening a path to democracy.”
As Berdymukhamedov feigns that he likes the idea of voters passing judgment on his regime, his chief intention is to test the population’s tolerance of his authoritarian ways, Peyrouse suggested.
“In authorizing multiple candidates and letting them make at least some suggestions in a few specific domains, Berdymukhamedov may be trying to determine, without taking much risk, a bit more about popular expectations, and to measure causes of growing resentment,” Peyrouse said.
Beyond gauging the popular mood, Berdymukhamedov may be using the election as a sort of political Rorschach test that might guide his actions on some sensitive policy issues.
For Turkmenistan, which is estimated to hold the world’s fourth largest reserves of natural gas, no issue is more sensitive than energy-export policy. Russia has long sought to dominate Turkmen gas exports, but Berdymukhamedov seems to have broken Gazprom’s stranglehold. In recent years, China has emerged as a major partner. Europe offers another lucrative export option, but various factors -- including political pressure from Russia and China, and a desire to avoid the human rights scrutiny that comes with dealing with the West – have caused Berdymukhamedov to tread slowly on a European deal.
It is noteworthy, then, that one of Berdymukhamedov’s challengers, Esendurdy Gayypov, has made the expansion of Turkmen gas exports to Europe the centerpiece of his campaign platform. It might be that Berdymukhamedov is simply trying to use Gayypov to string the United States and European Union along on the possibility of Turkmenistan committing to the construction of a trans-Caspian pipeline and shipping gas westward via that route. But it could also be the case that Berdymukhamedov remains genuinely interested in exporting to Europe, and is interested in seeing what kind of reaction Gayypov’s public comments get from Russian media and elsewhere.
No matter what Berdymukhamedov has said or done during this election cycle, Western observers dismiss the possibility of a credible vote on February 12. “Nobody can seriously think that this election will respect the basic principles of democracy,” Peyrouse said.
In the face of such skepticism, Turkmen state media has gone into overdrive, determined to lend the election an air of legitimacy. The state-run Altyn Asyr television channel went so far as to broadcast a report on February 6 claiming that visiting representatives OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) had praised the political process. “The [ODIHR] visitors said all the necessary measures had been taken so that the election campaign was free and fair,” a reporter on the broadcast stated.
Jens-Hagen Eschenbacher, an ODIHR spokesman, disputed the accuracy of the television report. He confirmed that an ODIHR delegation is in Ashgabat to help staffers at the OSCE office in the Turkmen capital “in following the elections.” But the ODIHR team does not have any formal monitoring mandate.
“These are not regular observers … and they will not publicly comment on the process. Reports claiming the opposite are wrong, or fabricated,” Eschenbacher said. He added that Turkmenistan, in violation of its OSCE membership obligations, never extended a formal invitation to the group to dispatch an election monitoring mission.
“We would not have sent an observation mission anyways,” he added. He cited a recent needs assessment mission report that found Turkmenistan’s political environment to be so stifling that it would be useless to expect “that the deployment of an election observation mission, even of a limited nature, would add value at this point in time."
The closer Election Day looms, the more Berdymukhamedov seems to be showing his true colors. A report distributed by the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency, for example, noted on February 9 that Turkmen authorities “unilaterally closed its border with Kazakhstan ahead of the presidential election.” The move is apparently part of a comprehensive effort to ensure that voting goes according to plan.
“All dictators or extreme authoritarian leaders like Berdymukhamedov, even if they have been consolidating their power for years, still fear protest and opposition,” Peyrouse said. “Total control doesn’t exist: Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria illustrate that extremely well, and the Turkmen president is perfectly aware of that.”
Justin Burke is the managing editor of Eurasianet.org. David Trilling contributed to the reporting of this story.