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Voters head to first polls since autocrat's death

Latest update : 2008-12-14

In their first election since absolute leader Saparmurat Niyazov's death, Turkmens go to the polls in what is being touted as a step toward democracy. But with nearly all candidates from the ruling party, critics have called it a sham.

AFP - Turkmenistan voted Sunday in a parliamentary election meant to show that the energy-rich central Asian nation was shedding its autocratic past, but Western observers said nothing had changed.

Authorities said turnout reached 93.87 percent in the election for 288 candidates, all of whom support the policies of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in the ex-Soviet republic.

Voting stations were festooned with Turkmen flags and pictures of Berdymukhamedov, the successor of eccentric dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, who ruled Turkmenistan for two decades until his death in 2006.

Over 2.5 million people were eligible to vote in the election, held under the framework of a new constitution approved in September and intended to increase parliament's powers and raise the number of seats from 65 to 125.

"I attach hopes for the better to these elections, especially for our children," Valentina Redzhepova, an official at one of Ashgabat's voting precincts, told AFP.

"We are waiting for borders to open even further so more guests can come to us and so we can visit them."

Voters, however, appeared reluctant to criticise the government.

In Gyami, a village outside the Turkmen capital, 25-year-old Guzel said she had come to the local polling station to vote and watch her daughter perform in a children's folk-dance troupe.

"I voted for our fellow village resident. He is an experienced person and knows village life well," she said.

Pensioner Bayram-aga, a voter in Ashgabat, said: "I remember the elections from the Soviet days.... People were very active then, it was like a festival. Now it's much quieter."

Western observers say Niyazov still casts a shadow, despite promises of openness by Berdymukhamedov and some moves to dismantle the late dictator's bizarre personality cult.

Niyazov's gold statue still towers over the desert nation's capital, rotating to face the sun.

"The facade has changed but the foundations remain the same," said a Western diplomat, who requested anonymity.

"Power rests entirely with the president. His photo appears every day on the front of the papers. He strictly controls the economy and the whole of the media," the diplomat added.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said in an assessment last month that Turkmenistan had made "some progress" but "remains... one of the most repressive and authoritarian states in the world."

The elections are unlikely to get a clean bill of health from the West, not least as all candidates have stressed support for the president while campaigning.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe sent eight experts to monitor the poll and draw up an "internal report."

The group's spokesman, Jens Hagen Eschenbecher, told AFP that the experts would not be making any public statements on their conclusions.

Ninety percent of the 288 candidates come from the Democratic Party set up by Niyazov in place of the Communist Party, with the other 10 percent coming from so-called "initiative groups" that have little clout.

All candidates are funded by the state, with a ban on other funding.

Western journalists have been refused permission to cover the vote. Foreign election observers will mainly come from the Commonwealth of Independent States, a post-Soviet group with little credibility.

With its enormous natural gas reserves, Turkmenistan is central to European efforts to diversify gas supplies away from Russia. Berdymukhamedov has voiced support for giving the West more access to Turkmen gas.

Date created : 2008-12-14