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Turkmen President Extends Rule In Tightly Controlled Vote

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov casts his vote at a polling station during the presidential election in Ashgabad on February 12.

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the authoritarian president of gas-rich Turkmenistan, has secured a third term in office by winning 97.69 percent of the vote in the February 12 election, according to the Central Election Commission.

The election commission announced the result on February 13, a day after an election whose outcome seemed certain in advance because of Berdymukhammedov's domination of the Central Asian country and the tightly controlled campaign.

The commission put the turnout at more than 97 percent of eligible voters. But RFE/RL correspondents saw only a trickle of voters at several polling stations in the capital, Ashgabat.

The election hands Berdymukhammedov, 59, a new seven-year term. He maintains strict control over all aspects of society and was all but guaranteed to defeat the other eight candidates, who were widely seen as window dressing for the vote.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported that, two days before the actual vote, students at a school in Ashgabat were tasked with filling in ballots in favor of the country's president.

"These ballots are to be put in ballot boxes for the people who will not show up," a source at the school located on the capital's Kemine Street told RFE/RL.

Central Asia watchers say the Turkmen presidential vote on February 12 will do little to change the reality beneath a veneer of democracy.
Central Asia watchers say the Turkmen presidential vote on February 12 will do little to change the reality beneath a veneer of democracy.

In power since 2006, Berdymukhammedov ran against little-known regional government officials, lawmakers, and heads of companies on a ballot that includes candidates from more than one party for the first time.

The changes came after Berdymukhammedov said last year that there would be "alternatives" in the 2017 election.

But no parliamentary or presidential election held in Turkmenistan has been deemed free or fair by international monitors since the country gained independence in the 1991 Soviet collapse. According to official results, Berdymukhammedov won 89 percent of the vote in 2006 and 97 percent in 2012.

Berdymukhammedov cast his vote at a school in Ashgabat, accompanied by family members including his son, who was elected to parliament last year.

"If I am elected, then our policies aimed at improving the welfare of the people will continue," he told reporters.

No Real Opposition

Observers say the presence of unknown candidates and state-created parties in this election was unlikely to make a difference in a country where all media outlets are controlled by the state.

"Every election in the past 25 years has been rigged and there is no real opposition in the country -- the society is oppressed and independent media is practically nonexistent," says Michal Romanowski, an expert on Eurasia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

State media gave little coverage to the other eight candidates' election campaigns, occasionally showing brief clips of meetings with voters.

Berdymukhammedov, on the other hand, enjoyed blanket media coverage in frequent appearances in cities and towns across the sprawling, sparsely populated nation of 5.3 million.

A dentist-turned-politician, Berdymukhammedov came to power after the death of the eccentric Saparmurat Niyazov, who was known for his extensive personality cult and brutal crackdowns on dissent.

Mild Reforms

Berdymukhammedov introduced some mild reforms early in his presidency, such as reintroducing foreign languages to the school curriculum and reopening village hospitals closed down by Niyazov.

But critics lament that the country still has no real opposition parties and that political dissenters are routinely imprisoned or placed in psychiatric hospitals.

Observers also say Berdymukhammedov has also begun building his own personality cult, like Niyazov, who called himself Turkmenbashi, or Father of All Turkmen.

Calling himself Arkadag, the Protector, Berdymukhammedov had a 21-meter marble and gold-leaf statue of himself on horseback, holding a dove, erected in Ashgabat in 2015.

The election comes as Turkmenistan’s economy struggles following a steep decline in global energy prices and a severe drop in exports.

Many state salaries are not being paid on time and the country also faces a deficit of staples such as cooking oil, flour, and sugar, as well as medicine, leading to price hikes in bazaars.

Photographs from Ashgabat and other cities showed long lines at government-owned grocery shops ahead of New Year celebrations.

During the election campaign, the government ordered private traders in bazaars to lower food prices, according to merchants and consumers.

With reporting by Farangis Najibullah and Pete Baumgartner in Prague, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, and AFP