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Turkmen Elections Look Like Next Step Toward Dynasty

Serdar Berdymukhammedov, Turkmenistan's leader in waiting?
Serdar Berdymukhammedov, Turkmenistan's leader in waiting?

As astounding as it may sound to those familiar with Turkmenistan's previous parliamentary elections, it's true: For once, there's something interesting about the Turkmen parliamentary elections.

The voting is scheduled for March 25. Turkmenistan's Central Election Commission has registered 284 candidates to compete for the 125 seats in Turkmenistan's Mejlis (parliament). Most of the candidates are from the three registered political parties -- the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT, formerly the Communist Party); the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, founded in 2012; and, making its first appearance in parliamentary elections, the Agrarian Party, founded in 2014 -- although public initiative groups are fielding a small number of candidates.

The latter two parties were arguably formed to create the illusion of multiparty elections. Both parties support President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's policies. Neither has proposed any initiatives and, in fact, the two parties are rarely mentioned at all in state media except at election time. The same is true of the DPT.

Turkmenistan's parliamentary elections have been a farce from the start. The first elections in December 1994, three years after Turkmenistan became independent, featured 51 candidates running for 50 seats; the last parliamentary elections, in December 2013, had 283 candidates, 99 of them from the DPT, running for 125 seats.

It makes little difference who wins seats, since Turkmenistan's parliament is a rubber-stamp body for the country's president; and the current parliament was lowered in status after the presidential election in February 2018. The higher legislative body, such as it is, in Turkmenistan at the moment is the Council of Elders, though a subsequent decree from Berdymukhammedov made it possible for younger people to join the council.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, has been interviewing citizens in Turkmenistan about parliamentary elections for many years; and it has become apparent that most, nearly all, know little or nothing about the people running in their districts or any other districts.

That is where these elections are different.

Because there is one candidate this time whom most citizens in Turkmenistan probably do know: Serdar Berdymukhammedov, President Berdymukhammedov's only son.

Serdar, 36, is already a member of Turkmenistan's parliament. He won a seat in snap elections on November 20, 2016.

The brief announcement of those impending by-elections was made on November 18 and did not include the names of the candidates who left their seats or why they were leaving; nor did it include any information about who was running for the vacant seats. It was not until November 23 that state media reported that the younger Berdymukhammedov had won the seat in the Dushak voting district of Ahal Province.

Serdar is running to reclaim that seat on March 25, and there is very little doubt he will win.

But there's more.

Serdar was just in Astana, Kazakhstan, at the same time Kazakhstan's capital was hosting the first summit of Central Asian leaders. President Berdymukhammedov did not attend -- he went to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates instead -- and instead sent the speaker of parliament, Akja Nurberdieva, in his place.

If there were any photos of Nurberdieva in Astana, they were not widely distributed; but there were photos of Serdar meeting with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (right) meets with Serdar Berdymukhammedov in Astana on March 15.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (right) meets with Serdar Berdymukhammedov in Astana on March 15.

According to Turkmenistan's constitution, the speaker of the parliament is the second-highest post in the government, the person who takes over as president if the serving president is unable to perform the duties of office.

Nurberdieva has served as speaker of parliament, officially, since February 23, 2007 (acting speaker from December 22, 2006), an impressive term considering that most high-level Turkmen officials rarely last more than a couple of years, and often much less than that.

Nurbedieva is or will turn 61 years old this year, four years older than the minimum retirement age for women in Turkmenistan.

Should she vacate her post, it would clear the way for Serdar to become speaker of parliament -- thus becoming the constitutional successor to the president, his father.

Admittedly, it did not work out that way when independent Turkmenistan's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, died. The announcement of Niyazov's death on December 21, 2006, was soon followed by news that then-speaker of parliament Ovezgeldy Ataev had been arrested. Ataev was later charged with inciting interethnic rivalries and sentenced to prison.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov, at the moment, would seem to be better positioned for assuming control if his father became ill or died suddenly.

Those following Turkmen state media in recent months will be aware of the growing exposure Serdar has been receiving.

There is one more interesting aspect to these upcoming parliamentary elections. They are not being held in December, as all the previous five parliamentary elections have been (1994, 1999, 2004, 2008, and 2013). No reason has been given for the change; but with Turkmenistan facing the worst economic crisis in its 26-year history, there might be a desire to get the elections over before major changes -- possibly a long-overdue currency devaluation, for example -- are implemented.

(The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL)
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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.