Next month, Turkmenistan, Central Asia’s most closed society, will hold an election for president. There’s no secret who will win—current tyrant Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov—but the field of candidates has grown unexpectedly large. Is an exciting election in the works?
Probably not. Of the candidates currently running against Berdimuhamedov, none look likely to garner even statistically relevant support or votes. Berdimuhamedov, a dentist by trade, was swept to power after Turkmenistan’s previous president, Sapurmurat Niyazov, died. That death sparked some truly bizarre commentary in the west, including speculation that the country would collapse violently as elites battled for control of limited resources. There was no clear succession plan, even if the head of the Parliament was meant to be the interim president.
That never happened. Instead, Turkmeni elites quietly negotiated a new status quo by putting Berdimuhamedov in charge, then presented that to the world six weeks as an election in fait accompli (he got 89% of the vote). A year later, in 2008, Turkmenistan held an election for its majlis, or Parliament, which heralded a surprise 94% turnout.
Put simply, normal countries simply do not have elections like this. Turkmenistan’s elections are so obviously fraudulent that the OSCE declines to even monitor them, since there’s nothing to monitor. So why, then, would Turkmenistan create the sham of a crowded election field with so many candidates?
That’s the question that is preoccupying Turkmenistan watchers as the February 12 elections approach. A video leaked last month by RFE/RL shows a deranged-looking Berdimuhamedov berating his subordinates like children and insulting Turkey, whose companies are some of the only private businesses operating in the country (his remarks have sparked a minor uproar in the Turkish blogosphere).