Turkmenistan’s President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov says Sunday’s parliamentary election is a democratic milestone for his gas-rich nation, but critics say it merely slaps a veneer on what they call a repressive autocracy. The 56-year-old leader wields virtually unlimited power and is officially nicknamed Arkadag, or The Patron, in his mainly Muslim Central Asian state of 5.5 million which holds the world’s fourth largest reserves of natural gas. Keen to burnish his image abroad as he seeks new gas export routes to bypass former imperial master Russia, he stepped down as leader of the ruling Democratic Party in August and ordered the founding of a second political party, also loyal to him. “The December 15 election will herald a new stage of Turkmenistan’s democracy,” state television showed Berdymukhamedov telling a recent government meeting. He promised democratic reforms when he took office in 2007 after the death of his despotic predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov.
Instead, his critics say, he has kept a firm grip on all branches of power, promoted his own personality cult and continued to stifle dissent in one of the most tightly controlled former Soviet states.
Formally, the vote will be Turkmenistan’s first multi-party election since it gained independence when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. The Democratic Party, successor to the Soviet Communist Party, will contend with the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, as well as candidates from several state-sponsored public bodies.
But in reality, opposition is banned and human rights groups say several outspoken critics of the government have disappeared or been jailed. Torture is widely used on prisoners to elicit confessions and secure convictions in unfair trials, according to London-based rights group Amnesty International.