Turkmenistan polls seen as 'farce'

Turkmenistan's forthcoming parliamentary elections are being dismissed as a farce by Western diplomats.

    President Niyazov (C) has built a personality cult around himself

    President Saparmurat Niyazov's authoritarian leadership

    appears more and more divorced from the outside world, they say.

    Election officials in the natural gas-rich former Soviet

    republic have insisted that Sunday's elections to the 50-seat

    parliament, or majlis, will be competitive.

    But only one political party, Niyazov's Democratic Party, is

    registered

    .

    "To be nominated for parliament a person must be an honest,

    decent citizen demonstrating loyalty to the country, homeland and

    president and adhering to high professional, political and legal

    standards," election commission chairman Murad Karryev said.

    No observers

    The poll is the latest in Turkmenistan to which no international

    observers have been invited, including from the

    Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe

    (OSCE) or from Russia - usually a cheerleader

    for elections in former Soviet states. 

    Russia continues to wield strong
    political clout in Turkmenistan

    Niyazov, 64, was the Central Asian country's last Soviet leader

    and has retained power ever since, building a personality cult

    around himself and his deceased parents and declaring himself

    president-for-life and Turkmenbashi (father-of-all-Turkmen) in

    1999.

    The president's supporters say he successfully oversaw Turkmenistan's journey to independence, and

     has had considerable success in economically stablilising the country and allieviating poverty.

    However, Niyazov has repeatedly been criticised by the West, particularly

    since an alleged coup attempt in 2002 led to the arrest of hundreds

    of people, including children and old people, and to some suspects

    being tortured, drugged and possibly killed, according to the US

    State Department.

    Since last year's publication of a highly critical OSCE report

    on those events, "the situation in Turkmenistan sadly has not

    improved significantly", Larry Napper, a senior US diplomat, told an

    OSCE meeting in October.

    Toothless institution

    The majlis was already a toothless institution before Niyazov

    launched a partly-appointed higher legislative body last year, the

    People's Council, which meets annually.

    Differing publicly with Niyazov has become extra-hazardous since

    a law passed last year made it a crime punishable by life

    imprisonment to "sow doubt about presidential policy".

    "The changing of parliamentarians will have no effect on

    political life as parliament is completely subordinate to the

    president and has no real authority"

    a Western diplomat

    In an echo of Soviet times, 63-year-old community leader

    Gurbandurdy Durdykuliyev was forcibly detained in a remote

    psychiatric hospital in February after applying for permission to

    organise a protest on Niyazov's birthday, according to Amnesty

    International.

    Despite an assurance by the election commission that all is

    ready to ensure a high turnout on Sunday, there seems little

    public awareness of the election in the capital Ashgabat, a city

    dominated by a golden statue of Niyazov that rotates with the sun's

    passage across the sky.

    "I didn't know there were elections - I haven't seen any signs

    about it," said Durdy, a 19-year-old just out of army service and

    looking for work.

    Strategic location

    "I haven't heard anything about elections - I spend all my time

    trading in the bazaar," said another resident, Ailar, 40.

    "The changing of parliamentarians will have no effect on

    political life as parliament is completely subordinate to the

    president and has no real authority," a Western diplomat said.

    "I didn't know there were elections - I haven't seen any signs

    about it"


    Durdy,
    Ashgabat resident

    Turkmenistan will continue to be watched though, both by Moscow,

    which needs Turkmenistan's vast natural gas reserves to help meet

    European demand, and by Washington, whose efforts to court Niyazov

    have had only limited success.

    However, whenever Niyazov departs, the outlook may not be good for

    this desert country wedged between Afghanistan, Iran and

    Uzbekistan.

    "Any succession is likely to provoke tension, with a high

    possibility that it could descend into chaos and possibly political

    violence," the International Crisis Group, a security thinktank,

    said recently.

    Eligible voters are thought to number around a third of the

    population, which is variously estimated at between five million and

    6.5 million.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera + Agencies


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