Turkmenistan has voted in a tightly controlled snap election, with the son of outgoing President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov poised to win the ballot in the ex-Soviet Central Asian nation.
Nine candidates are on the ballot in the republic of six million people. Three-time President Berdymukhamedov, who tolerates no opposition and has dominated public life since the country’s founding president died in 2006, has made way for his 40-year-old son Serdar Berdymukhamedov.
A state television announcer confirming the beginning of voting at 7am (02:00 GMT) on Saturday said the elections “will become yet more clear evidence of the irreversibility of the process of democratisation of modern Turkmen society”.
Electoral authorities claimed an overall turnout of 97 percent after voting concluded at 7pm local time (14:00 GMT).
Gurbanguly, 64, signalled his decision to step aside last month and allow “young leaders” to govern.
The 64-year-old leader benefits from a glitzy leadership cult that includes a golden statue of him on horseback and elicits comparisons to North Korea – a country that has already witnessed two hereditary successions.
Turkmen state television’s fawning celebrations of his hobbies – horse riding, songwriting and rally car driving, to name a few – have made the so-called “protector” a phenomenon on foreign social media, all of which are blocked.
The leader, who claims that his country has not suffered a single case of the coronavirus, said last month that he wishes to remain in politics in his role as chairman of the Turkmen parliament’s upper chamber.
Much less is known about Serdar Berdymukhamedov, whose government promotions received little public attention until he entered parliament in 2016.
Since then he has been a deputy foreign minister, the head of a province, and an industry and construction minister.
Last year he won a triple promotion, taking up roles as deputy cabinet chair, auditor general and member of the security council.
Civil servant Selbi Nepesova, 39, told AFP news agency that Serdar Berdymukhamedov’s official biography proves he is “the most experienced” of the candidates, despite being younger than his rivals, most of whom are low-ranking government employees.
“People who worked with him know more about him than us simple folk. He will have his father close by,” the Ashgabat resident said, explaining her decision to vote for him.
Turkmenistan’s economy is almost wholly dependent on sales of natural gas, making it vulnerable to external shocks that have crippled the purchasing power of citizens, who have no access to hard currency.
The country sits on the world’s fourth-largest natural gas reserves and exports gas by pipelines to China and Russia.
Turkmen state media has almost completely ignored the bloody war taking place in Europe.
But on Friday it referenced “complicated circumstances” in Ukraine in a report on the evacuation of Turkmen students forced to flee the country.
Predictably, the mouthpiece gave the outgoing president credit for ensuring the evacuation.
The returning students “expressed their deep sincere gratitude to the leader of the nation for his truly fatherly care”, the state information service TDH claimed.
Turkmenistan’s upcoming father-son switch will be the first of its kind in Central Asia, despite erstwhile predictions of family rule in Turkmenistan’s larger neighbours Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
An inauguration ceremony has been scheduled for March 19, TDH stated on Friday.
Across the Caspian Sea in the Caucasus region, Azerbaijan became the first ex-Soviet country to establish a dynasty when its current president Ilham Aliyev took the helm upon father Heydar Aliyev’s death in 2003.
Tajikistan, the bloc’s poorest successor state, is expected to follow a similar path, with upper house head Rustam Emomali, 34, in pole position to succeed veteran leader Emomali Rahmon, 69, should Rahmon retire or prove unable to fulfil his duties.