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Voting Ends In Turkmenistan With President Expected To Prolong Rule

Turkmen voters went to polls on February 12.

Polls have closed in Turkmenistan, where the authoritarian president of the hermetic, gas-rich country was expected to extend his rule for seven more years.

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who has control over all aspects of society, was all but guaranteed to defeat eight other candidates who are widely seen as window dressing for the vote in the Central Asian country.

As polls closed late on February 12, the Central Election Commission reported more than 97 percent of eligible voters had turned out. But RFE/RL correspondents saw only a trickle of voters at several polling stations in the capital, Ashgabat.

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 is running 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 come after the 59-year-old incumbent 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," said 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.

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

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