Voters in Turkmenistan have started voting in parliamentary elections in the gas-rich Central Asian country that has long been ruled by authoritarian President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.
Turkmen can choose from three political parties and some independents, although all the candidates are ultimately loyal to Berdymukhammedov.
One of the candidates is the president's son, Serdar Berdymukhammedov, 36, who is considered a likely presidential successor by many observers.
Official data showed almost one-quarter of registered voters had cast their ballots by 9 am local time, within the first two hours of voting.
Polling stations greeted voters with national music, dance shows, and snacks.
In January, the Washington-based Freedom House nongovernmental group listed Turkmenistan among the 12 “worst of the worst countries” for political freedom and civil liberties.
None of the previous elections has been deemed free or fair by Western monitors. Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov won his third presidential term in February with 97 percent of the vote.
Some 284 candidates are competing for 125 parliamentary seats.
But the vote could be seen as further bolstering the profile of Serdar Berdymukhammedov, who is defending a seat in the Akhal region near the capital, Ashgabat, and is likely to capture an easy victory.
Little is known about him, although some information was released in an official biography this month. The statement said he worked in the state oil and gas industry and the Foreign Ministry before taking his parliamentary seat.
The current speaker of the parliament, Akja Nurberdieva, is 61 years old, and many experts say that if she should decide to give up her post, Serdar Berdymukhammedov would be in a position to assume the post, which would technically put him first in line to the presidency.
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.
Turkmenistan, with a population of about 6 million, heavily relies on natural-gas exports to keep its economy afloat. Its longtime customer, Russia, stopped purchases of Turkmen gas in 2016, but China built a new pipeline and has become the new top buyer.
With on reporting by AFP and Reuters