|Women walk past portraits of presidential candidates in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat [Reuters]|
Turkmenistan registered near-maximum turnout in Sunday’s ballot that will likely see President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov re-elected in the isolated but energy-rich nation.
The authoritarian Central Asian state’s leader, who assumed power in 2006 after the death of eccentric President Saparmurat Niyazov, faces seven loyal members of the elite on the ballot, none of whom dared to criticise him during the campaign.
Voting took place in a festive atmosphere with bands playing traditional music while food and even presents were handed to voters, the AFP news agency reported.
In addition to being the president, the 54-year-old is also prime minister, commander of the armed forces and chairman of the only political party in Turkmenistan.
Few citizens recognise anyone on the ballot paper other than the president, whose portrait – smiling and dressed in business suit and tie – can be found in parks, streets, offices and hotel lobbies across the desert nation of 5.5 million people.
Berdymukhamedov’s challengers, including government ministers and the director of a state-run textile factory, have lauded the president in the run-up to the vote.
One of the candidates, local agriculture official Redzhep Bazarov, even showered Berdymukhamedov with praise in his election manifesto.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has not sent observers, after deciding during a pre-vote mission to the country in December that its presence would not “add value” given limited freedoms and lack of political competition.
Voting took place in a festive atmosphere with bands playing traditional music and food and even presents handed to voters, said an AFP correspondent who was taken on a tour of polling stations by the election commission.
Berdymukhamedov, who won the last election in 2007 with 89 per cent of the vote, cast his vote alongside his son, grandson and his father Myalikguly Berdymukhamedov.
“An atmosphere of universal inspiration and high emotion is prevailing,” the country’s official news agency reported.
Shary, a 20-year-old taxi driver who gave only his first name, told the Reuters news agency that he did not need to visit a polling station because election officials would bring a ballot box to his home.
“They will come with a ballot box and I will vote, although nothing depends on me,” he said.
‘Era of rebirth’
Turkmenistan has issued no invitation for Western observers to assess the elections on a full-scale mission, while human rights workers and journalists have also been denied access to the country.
The energy-rich country is promoting the elections as a new step in a programme of democratic reforms, but Berdymukhamedov’s promise last summer to include genuine opposition in the polls appears not to have been fulfilled.
About three million people have the right to vote across the vast former Soviet state that extends from the Caspian Sea to Afghanistan and is one of the most secretive nations in the world.
Polls opened at 0300:GMT and should close 12 hours later. Turnout at 0500:GMT was already 22.8 per cent, the central election commission said.
Berdymukhamedov has started cautious reform after the excesses of the notorious personality cult under Niyazov, which extended to installing a golden statue of himself in Ashgabat that rotated to always face the sun.
In a half decade that Turkmenistan calls the “Era of Rebirth”, Berdymukhamedov had reopened cinemas, theatres and research institutes and started to encourage foreign companies to help exploit its energy reserves.
But critics say the drive has been little more than window dressing and that he still presides over an autocratic one party state that brutally cracks down on dissent.
“Serious human rights violations such as torture and ill-treatment continue to be committed in detention facilities and severe restrictions remain on freedom of movement and expression, political activism, faith and many other fundamental rights,” Amnesty International said in a statement ahead of the polls.