What would it mean if Turkmenistan’s president could only garner the votes of 85 percent of his flock? That support for his gas-subsidized welfare and international neutrality was waning? Or that Middle East dissent could be spilling over to this vast desert of stability? Or that the populace doubts the greatness of his Era of Great Revival?
Or none of those things. Building a truly unassailable cult of personality requires an ever-ascending process of glorification and affirmation. For two decades of independence, this has been the only politics Turkmenistan has ever known.
Another presidential election has passed in Turkmenistan, with another triumphant victory for the incumbent, in this case, Gurbanguly “The Protector” Berdymukhamedov, who won over 97 percent of the vote on February 12. The only question for some observers was whether a more reasonable victory margin was in the cards this year, at least as a gesture to apologists for Turkmenistan’s supposed progress toward democracy.
Berdymukhamedov’s victory with a turnout of over 96 percent still does not quite reach the near-perfect results his predecessor garnered. But give it time.
Saparmurat Niyazov “Turkmenbashi” became infallible precisely by this process. His first non-election was also Turkmenistan’s first. Running unopposed in 1990, he took 98.3 percent of the vote on 96.7 percent turnout. Two years later, again unopposed, he supposedly carried the affections of 99.5 percent of the 99.8 percent of voters who turned out. In a 1994 referendum, he achieved near perfection: 99.988 percent of 100 percent turnout. After some quick math, we are left to believe a mere 212 persons of a voting population of nearly 2 million voted "against" Turkmenbashi, an absurdity that defies even the inescapable role of human error.
This was the last time Turkmenbashi entertained the exercise of an election. He was named president for life in 1999 and died in office in 2006.
Berdymukhamedov, Turkmenbashi’s protégé, is putting this experience to practice.
In 2007, Berdymukhamedov usurped the throne while boasting the vague aura of ‘reformer’ by sharing the ballot with five sham candidates. Still, he took 89.23 percent of the vote, on 95 percent turnout.
Known to be fastidious and vain, Berdymukhamedov may require this ritual reaffirmation. One should not discount his many minions, whose advancement through the bureaucracy depend on their ability to push the cult of personality forward in ways that might satisfy the particular expectations of the president. Whether these sycophants were ordered to fashion this particular unlikely result or simply figured it out themselves matters little. They all came up through Turkmenbashi’s system. The logic of deification will accept no retrenchment. This is all they know.
Little room remains for further improvement. Next time, in 2017, Berdymukhamedov could enjoy an all-conquering 99 percent triumph. But Turkmenbashi’s doting People’s Assembly declared him president for life eight years into his reign. Perhaps Berdymukhamedov will prove himself grander than his tutor, by claiming that title in even less time. But only if the people demand it, of course.