Authoritarian Turkmenistan has announced results of the country's December 15 parliamentary elections, which offered a total lack of opposition to President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s stronghold on power.
According to results released late December 18 by Turkmenistan's Central Electoral Commission, the pro-presidential Democratic Party won 47 of 125 seats up for grabs in the rubber-stamp parliament. The new Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, which was founded on the president’s orders last year, won 14. Trade unions won 33 and women's groups 16, the state-run TDH news agency reported.
This was billed as Turkmenistan's first “multi-party” election, since Ashgabat allowed a second political party to field candidates. But the vote did not offer a genuine choice because all contenders were carefully vetted to ensure loyalty to Berdymukhamedov, who tolerates no dissent and rules with absolute authority over the gas-rich nation of 5 million.
Some may wonder why bother holding an election under such restrictions, but the carefully stage-managed performance offers a veneer of legitimacy to what is arguably one of the world’s few remaining totalitarian states.
The “election was held in line with Turkmenistan's constitution and election law. The election met generally recognized democratic norms and was open and transparent, and ensured the free expression of the will of the country's citizens," the head of the CIS observer mission, Sergey Lebedev (formerly a senior Russian intelligence officer), was quoted as saying by Russia's RIA Novosti news agency on December 16.
This was the first time the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) sent an election assessment team to Turkmenistan. Senator James Walsh from Ireland, who led the delegation, justified the mission on the grounds that “engagement is much more productive than isolation.”
Walsh did note, however, “low voter participation throughout the day, which may illustrate a significant level of voter apathy” and seems to belie the official turnout of 91.33 percent.
“We are concerned about plurality of choice for Turkmenistan's citizens. Nevertheless, we do see this as a step. Now we are hoping that Turkmenistan will build upon this precedent and meet the expectation that this sets – that is, that the legislative framework and overall political culture will continue to evolve toward the goal of achieving a truly competitive, democratic, multi-party system based on openness and transparency,” Walsh said in a December 17 statement.
To anyone familiar with the way elections are held in Turkmenistan, which ranks among the most corrupt and despotic countries in the world, such hopes may appear fanciful.
In a December 12 report, the London-based rights group Amnesty International assailed the parliamentary vote, along with promised reforms, as “token gestures designed to distract the international community,” while enabling energy-hungry Western governments to engage Ashgabat in an uncritical manner.
“Holding these elections will not address the atmosphere of total repression, denial of the basic human rights, and the all-permeating fear that has gripped society in Turkmenistan for years, and all pretense of progress on human rights is simply deceitful,” John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia program director, said.