ELECTIONS UNDER BERDYMUKHAMMEDOV

RIGGED SPECIAL ELECTION THAT MADE BERDYMUKHAMMEDOV PRESIDENT

On the February 2007 elections that official made Berdymukhammedov president, Radio Free Europe reported: “ For most countries, a 98.65 percent voter turnout in an election would be amazing. But that's not necessarily the case for Turkmenistan, where official turnout at the last presidential election -- in 1992 -- was 99.8 percent. But the official overwhelming turnout in this presidential election is at odds with reports from Radio Free Europe correspondents, who reported sparse attendance at several voting centers, both in the capital, Ashgabat, and in the eastern Labap Province. Jose Soares, a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which unofficially observed the election, said the elections "were absolutely not free and fair." [Source: Bruce Pannier, Radio Free Europe, February 12, 2007]

Erika Dailey, the director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project, said from the start that not much could be expected from this election. "[People note that] this is the first multicandidate presidential election in Turkmenistan," he said. "That may be the case but it's an election without choice. Essentially among the six candidates there were no significant differences in platform and since they were all representing the same [political] party, the vote in an of itself is not significant."

Dailey said in some democratic countries this type of an election would be the first step in determining a president -- that is, choosing the top candidate from one party. "Generally that's considered just a primary [election], and a primary is not the basis for actually selecting a president," she said. That an election was held at all is significant. Niyazov was named president-for-life at the end of 1999 and the Turkmen regime shrugged off seven years of international criticism for that decision. It would have come as little surprise to the international community if the Turkmen government had simply appointed a successor without holding a multicandidate election.

Michael Hall, the International Crisis Group's Central Asian project director, told Radio Free Europe from Bishkek that the reason for holding the election is "legitimacy." "On the other hand, the very fact that elections are being held is interesting," he said. "The new authorities in Turkmenistan want to show some kind of legitimacy before their own population and before the international community, so one could say it is a good sign that maybe something in Turkmenistan is changing."

Dailey said: "What is important though, and I think profoundly important, is the fact that for the first time people inside Turkmenistan have the opportunity to elect somebody who has already promised change, who has broken certain taboos, for example talking about certain social problems; everything from drug addiction to the failure of the education system and so forth,"

Campaigning for the Election That Made Berdymukhammedov President

Peter Finn wrote in the Washington Post, “Six presidential candidates are barnstorming the country and holding public meetings to talk about improving education, reforming health care, ensuring adequate pensions and boosting agriculture. It could be Iowa -- if it weren't Turkmenistan. Acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, 49, will almost certainly win when the Central Asian country's citizens go to the polls Feb. 11. His opponents, a deputy minister and four regional officials, are willing foils, according to analysts and exiled politicians. Murad Karyev, the supposedly neutral chairman of the Central Election Commission, has already said Berdymukhammedov is the best man for the job.[Source: Peter Finn, Washington Post, February 4, 2007 |::|]

“But the modicum of debate in a country that during its 15-plus years of independence lived under the megalomaniacal shadow of president-for-life Saparmurad Niyazov amounts to a slight thaw. For the first time, the country will hold a presidential election in which more than one candidate is running. Each of the six candidates continues to pledge loyalty to the legacy of Niyazov. But their stump speeches contain some implicit criticism of the late president by acknowledging the need to reverse the erosion of social programs, in particular. "We know who the winner is already," said Murad Esenov, director of the Institute for Central Asian and Caucasian Studies in Sweden. "However, there are other candidates, and the fact that they have the possibility to speak up is significant and good. I believe there will be certain changes, because everyone realizes they cannot live as they lived before." |::|

“The exiled opposition has been prevented from returning to take part in the election. A coalition of exile organizations chose Khudaiberdy Orazov, a former vice premier and head of the Central Bank, to run as their candidate, but he is sitting out the campaign abroad. "They are trying to create an image of real elections, but of course these are not elections. It's some sort of clownery," said Orazov, who lives in Sweden. "I believe we are entering the second stage of dictatorship." |::|

“Agents from Turkmenistan's internal security service, the MNB, are shadowing five of the candidates to ensure they don't stray from their scripts and say things contrary to policies laid out by the leading candidate, according to the Eurasian Transition Group, a nongovernmental organization in Germany that is one of the few with a presence in Turkmenistan. "The other five candidates have to attend security council meetings, where they receive their orders," said Michael Laubsch, executive director of the German group. "Everything is concentrated on Berdymukhammedov, and the MNB have total control over the other candidates. |::|

“Russian President Vladimir Putin has embraced Berdymukhammedov. At a news conference Thursday, Putin mused favorably on the idea of an OPEC-like organization for natural gas, although he stressed, "We are not going to set up a cartel." The United States and the European Union have stepped up contacts with Turkmenistan's new leadership. The opposition-in-exile has expressed frustration at what it sees as muted statements from those countries about the need for real democratic change.” |::|

"I would like to be the president of a democratic country where people enjoy freedom and every condition to work and to rest, and where justice, peace and friendship dominate," Berdymukhammedov said, to sustained applause, at a televised meeting. In a secretly conducted poll of 1,145 respondents across Turkmenistan after Niyazov's death, the Eurasian Transition Group found that 81 percent of those surveyed want a president who supports democratic reforms, and 55 percent believe their votes will not be counted on election day.

2008 Turkmenistan Parliamentary Elections

Parliamentary elections to the Mejlis (Assembly) were held in Turkmenistan in December 2008. The number of assembly members was increased from 65 to 125 (while the People's Council was abolished) in constitutional reforms enacted in September 2008. It was the first election since Turkmenistan's independence in which, theoretically, parties other than the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan were allowed to take part since the constitution no longer defines Turkmenistan as a one-party state. However, no legal opposition parties had been set up and the fact that the election took place in single-seat constituencies greatly diminished the opposition's chance of gaining parliamentary representation. [Source: Wikipedia +]

There were 13 seats up for election in Ashgabat, 19 seats in Ahal Province, 11 in Balkan Province, 26 in Dasoguz Province, 26 in Lebap Province, and 28 in Mary Province.[15] Two or more candidates competed in each constituency, and candidates needed to win 50 percent of the vote in order to secure the seat.[15] Runoffs were held on 28 December 2008, and a revote was held in one seat on 8 February 2009.A list of 123 winners were announced on 22 December 2008.[16] However, the party affiliation of the candidates was not listed.

Reuters reported: Turkmenistan's government “called the parliamentary election a milestone in the country's democratic reform, even though only state-approved candidates were permitted to stand. Most of the candidates in the December 14 election represented the ruling Democratic Party -- the only one registered in Turkmenistan -- and there were a handful of state-approved independents. Berdymukhammedov, has promised reform to attract foreign investors, and the election was central to this plan. The aim was to create a bigger and more powerful parliament that would have a greater say in national decision-making. "The elections that took place in the atmosphere of openness...and gave voters a wide range of choices became a new step on the path of strengthening democratic principles in Turkmen society," the state-owned Turkmen Khabarlary news agency said. [Source: Reuters, December 15, 2008 <=>]

“Critics said the election, in which 94 percent of the electorate voted, was far from fair. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe did not send a full monitoring mission, saying a genuine contest was impossible. "Elections were just the same under Niyazov," said Farid Tukhbatulin, a Turkmen rights campaigner who spoke to Reuters from Vienna, where he lives in exile. "Not only are there no political parties, but ethnic minorities were also poorly represented among the candidates." <=>

“Reporters Without Borders called Turkmenistan, along with North Korea, an "unchanging hell" in its latest global press freedom report, saying its population "is cut off from the world and is subjected to propaganda worthy of a bygone age." The presence of foreign media was limited, as many journalists were unable to get permission to cover the vote. The Turkmen opposition mostly lives in exile and has shown little interest in the election. None of the opposition leaders could be reached for comment or posted any statements. "The conditions are not in place to hold a free and fair election that would be a meaningful reflection of the will of the people," Human Rights Watch said in a report last month.” <=>

Questions About the 2008 Turkmenistan Parliamentary Elections

New York-based Human Rights Watch said the conditions were not in place in Turkmenistan for free and fair elections. The election was held in the framework of a new constitution approved in September, 2008. Some 2.5 million people are eligible to cast ballots The government has said the turnout was around 90 percent but local activist groups doubted the accuracy figure. Critics have rejected the vote as a sham, noting that most of the 288 candidates were members of Berdymukhammedov’s party, the Democratic Party, Turkmenistan's only registered party. The rest were representatives of state-sponsored organizations, such as so-called women's or youth "initiative groups." [Source: Radio Free Europe, December 14, 2008]

Turkmen voters knew little, if anything, about the candidates before they cast their ballots as they had little access to information about candidates. While local media offered some information about the election, state television largely avoided any serious coverage of the candidates. The entire process was overseen by the chairman of the Central Election Commission, Myrat Karryev, who had held the post since 1996, while also serving as a parliamentarian and representing the party of Niyazov and Berdymukhammedov. [Source: Bruce Pannier, Radio Free Europe, December 13, 2008 <<>>]

Sazak Durdymuradov, a Turkmen activist who tried but was not allowed to run in the election, told Radio Free Europe: “If you are not at the side of some specific groups here, you are not allowed to defend people's interests and benefits. We are in such a difficult situation. I wonder whether the president knows about these [violations] or not. I cannot understand why the president pledged to hold the elections. ... It is all the same games. And one more thing. All the requirements to vote have been prepared in our school, but we do not know for whom we will vote on December 14. Ten days are left before the elections, and we still do not know who the candidates are. There are no pictures, no meetings, nothing. ... State media fails to give information about it. It is like a game. It is obvious that people will not participate in the elections. Even if they come, I am sure that they will not support the elections [in their hearts]. [Source: Radio Free Europe (RFE), December 13, 2008]

Candidates Not Allowed to Run in the 2008 Turkmenistan Parliamentary Elections

The opposition had trouble registering their candidacies. Bruce Pannier of Radio Free Europe wrote: “Gurbandurdy Durdykuliev, a Turkmen citizen from the western city of Balkanabad, serves as one such example. He was unable to register because election officials said he was late handing in his documents. In an interview with Radio Free Europe, Durdykuliev denies that he missed any deadline. Not only that, he says he won't be able to cast a ballot either, since his passport was confiscated by Turkmen authorities."On December 1, my initiative group sent a letter to the OSCE mission in Ashgabat stating that I have no passport. Therefore, I cannot vote or run for a candidacy," Durdykuliev told Radio Free Europe. "I was told that the OSCE received the letter, and later I had a chance to talk with one of the OSCE observers, who promised to raise the issue with the Central Election Commission." Durdykuliev was released from a psychiatric hospital in 2006 after having been placed there in 2004 after writing to Niyazov requesting permission to hold an antigovernment demonstration. [Source: Bruce Pannier, Radio Free Europe, December 13, 2008 <<>>]

Sazak Durdymuradov, a journalist, teacher, and activist from Bakharden district in Turkmenistan's Akhal Province, had his candidacy to run in the country's parliamentary elections rejected by Turkmen officials, for unknown reasons. In an interview with Nazar Hudayberdi of Radio Free Europe (RFE) Turkmen Service, Durdymuradov said he was concerned for the safety of himself and his family. He said the Turkmen people were upset that elections are neither free nor fair and they cannot express themselves openly. Durdymuradov worked as a reporter for RFE until he was seized at home by Turkmen secret police in June 2008 and taken to a psychiatric clinic. He was forced to sign a letter agreeing not to work as a journalist before being released in early July. [Source: Radio Free Europe (RFE), December 13, 2008 ^^^]

Durdymuradov said: “I think I was one of the first people from local initiative groups to announce their candidacy for the elections. But I failed to have my candidacy approve due to unknown reasons. According to the election law, the number of people who [must join an initiative group to support a] candidate must be at least 10. There were 23 people who supported my candidacy. Actually, it is really hard for me to talk about it at all. To be frank, I am concerned about my own life and the life of my family members, as I was warned. I do not know the reason. What makes me upset is that I acted according to the law. My priority was the interests of the people. I could gather far more than the 200 [supporters needed to nominate a candidate], but there is no place to hold a campaign [rally]. The authorities refused to provide reasons for my rejection. I do not blame local authorities. I blame National Security officers and Central Election Committee officials because my documents were accepted at first but handed back a day later, saying they were unacceptable.” ^^^

Uninformed Voters in the 2008 Turkmenistan Parliamentary Elections

Many Turkmen knew nothing about the parliamentary elections until a few days before it took place. Gozel, an Ashgabat resident and 36-year-old artist, told Radio Free Europe: "I've heard that this vote is going to be different from previous elections, but so far I haven't seen any difference -- the candidates aren't meeting with their voters, and when they give television interviews, instead of talking about their programs, the candidates talk about their support and loyalty to the president." [Source: Farangis Najibullah, Radio Free Europe, December 13, 2008 \=/]

"Elections here have always been just a bureaucratic procedure, a ritual that doesn't change anything, and I don't have any reason to think that the [2008] elections will be any different," says a 27-year-old Turkmen journalist who doesn't want to give his name. "All candidates are chosen by the authorities, all of them are loyal to the president. I don't think any of them would dare to speak their mind or, for instance, reject a bill or suggest some reforms." \=/

Little information about the elections has reached remote villages in the countryside. Gulya, a young woman in Chandabil district in northern Turkmenistan, told Radio Free Europe that she had "no idea" about the upcoming elections. "I didn't know elections were taking place until you mentioned it," she says. "None of my friends are aware about the vote itself, let alone the candidates and their programs." Many of those who were aware of the elections say they don't believe the new parliament will change anything in their lives. A 48-year-old unemployed woman in the eastern Mary Province says she has lost faith in officials. "I was asking former parliament members to help me to find a job, but they didn't, and I don't think the new parliament will be any better," says the woman, who like many other people in Turkmenistan was reluctant to give her name to foreign media. \=/

Despite people's lack of information about the elections, the Turkmen journalist in Ashgabat believes there won't be any problem with turnout on election day. "Usually, two to three days before the vote, local police officers go house to house and tell people to go to the polling stations on Sunday morning," the journalist says. "People in Turkmenistan are afraid of the police, so they do what they are told by the police." Gozel, the artist in Ashgabat, says she is going to vote. "I don't have anything else to do on Sunday morning anyway," she says. Like many other Turkmen voters, she'll find out the names of the candidates at the polling stations on election day. \=/

Challenges for Reporters Covering the 2008 Turkmenistan Parliamentary Elections

On covering the election, Oguljamal Yazliyeva, the director of Radio Free Europe’s Turkmen Service, said: "Despite the Turkmen government's promises of democratization, people who hold diverging opinions or criticize the authorities are still subject to pressure. The authorities are restricting the work of our correspondents and contributors by cutting off their telephones and monitoring their every move. International calls to and from our correspondents provided by the private MTS GSM operator, and the state-owned Turkmen Telecom, have been blocked. MTS GSM in Ashgabat told us that there are no technical problems and recommended that we call the customer-service department. But whenever we call, the number is constantly busy. Some engineers at MTS GSM told us that there were some "comments" on Radio Free Europe correspondents' profiles in their database.

"Osman Halliyev, our correspondent in the Lebap Province, says... that in recent days his home and movements have been under constant surveillance by the local secret police. His only contact with us is through e-mail. But even communication through the Internet is difficult. Although Internet connections at home are becoming more common in the cities, it's still a problem for our correspondents living in distant rural areas. There aren't many Internet cafes, and we assume they're all monitored by the authorities.

"And it's hard to do a story when members of parliament and officials never speak to us. But that doesn't mean we'll stop trying to speak to them. "We've always had these types of problems with the authorities, but since we upped our election coverage in recent weeks it's got worse. It's difficult to know what to do. There's not very much we can do, except try to report the news, give context, and keep our correspondents safe. "It helps when organizations, like Reporters Without Borders, call on the authorities to loosen up their grip on media, but for now, even though Turkmenistan is supposed to be on the path to democracy, not very much has changed." [Source: Radio Free Europe, December 13, 2008]

Berdymukhammedov Wins Turkmenistan Presidential Election with 97 Percent of the Vote

In February 2012, Berdymukhamedov won a new five-year term as president by capturing 97 percent of the vote in an election described a western expert as a democratic sham. Berdymukhammedov faced seven relatively unknown candidates. Seven other potential contenders withdrew their names or failed to submit their documents on time and did not make the final cut. All the candidates were from the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, the country's only political party. Radio Free Europe reported one person who didn’t vote said he was contacted by an official asking him to explain his absence.

Associated Press reported: “All of Berdymukhamedov's seven opponents praised his leadership in their campaigns, making the authoritarian leader's victory in election a formality. Berdymukhamedov improved on his performance in the 2007 election, in which he secured his first term with 89 percent of the vote. The head of the central election commission, Orazmyrat Niyazliyev, said the vote was democratic and had contributed to national unity. [Source: Associated Press, February 13, 2012 /~/]

“Annette Bohr, an expert on Turkmenistan at the London-based Chatham House institute, said the election presented only the facade of a democratic process. "It is the typical faux democracy that you see in so many countries," Bohr said. The only international observation mission overseeing the election was a delegation from the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which frequently offers positive assessments of votes criticised by more established monitoring bodies. The CIS executive secretary, Sergei Lebedev, said the election complied with democratic norms. Monitors had noted some minor irregularities but they were unlikely to have any impact on the final result, he said. The OSCE had said earlier that conditions were not suitable for a vote-monitoring mission and Turkmenistan did not invite its observers.” /~/

Other news agencies reported: “Election officials in Turkmenistan recorded a near-unanimous turnout in the country's presidential election. The Election Commission said 96.28 percent of the country's 3 million eligible voters had cast their ballots by the time polls closed. Berdymukhammedov ran against seven relatively unknown candidates. He appeared at an Ashgabat polling station accompanied by his father, his son, and his grandson. Berdymukhammedov allowed his father to exercise his constitutional right as the elder in the family and vote first. The poll marked only the third time in more than 20 years of independence that Turkmenistan has held a presidential election, and only the second time when there has been more than one candidate running.

“I voted for our current president, Gurbanguly [Berdymukhammedov]. There is no other candidate," a voter in Lebap Province told Radio Free Europe. "I saw one individual voting on behalf of his entire family. It’s not something new. I haven’t seen any other irregularities. Compared to previous elections, the organization was better. A concert is taking place in the polling station where I voted, shopping kiosks are installed, medical professionals are on duty, and police inspectors are monitoring.”

“Analysts say Berdymukhammedov has done little to fulfill campaign promises he made in 2007, such as loosening the strict controls over society put in place by Niyazov or allowing other political parties to be registered. He has pledged to improve living standards if he is reelected. Voter Khurma Gul, from Serdarabad district in Lebap Province, said she is hopeful the situation will change one day. “I have participated for the first time in the election. I have voted despite that I know who is going to win," she told Radio Free Europe. "Nothing depends upon the [wishes] of the ordinary people in the election. I believe the time will come when real democratic elections will be held in our country. Then people will nominate and choose their own leader. I sincerely believe in this.”

Inside Turkmenistan's Surreal Presidential Election

One of the was surprising things about the 2012 presidential elections was that the field was so large: eight candidates, some of whom actively encouraged people to vote for Berdymukhammedov. Joshua Foust wrote in The Atlantic, “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. [Source: Joshua Foust, The Atlantic, January 7, 2012 *|*]

“From the few hints that have escaped the country's intense censorship regime, there is widespread discontent about the election (those who have spoken out have faced government harassment), even though this is only the second time there's even been a multi-candidate election in the country's 20 years of independence. Berdimuhamedov didn't even register to participate as a candidate until” a month before the election. *|*

“Inexplicably, Berdimuhamedov seems determined to proceed with the trappings of a normal election no one will acknowledge as such. At this point, the only question is what percentage of the vote he will choose to accept. Other Central Asian dictators have not shied away from impossible margins, such as Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan (95 percent) and Islom Karimov in Uzbekistan ( 88 percent). Will Berdimuhamedov meet or beat his 89 percent from 2007? Will he go higher, to lend the appearance of inevitability to his oppressive regime? Or will he go lower, to try to create the false sense of political dynamism? “It is the ambiguity over such bizarre questions—literally how much effort will a tyrant go to create the illusion of choice for his renewal of power—that makes studying Central Asia so surreal and fascinating. “*|*

Candidates in Turkmenistan's 2012 Presidential Election

On the seven challengers running against Berdymukhammedov, Farangis Najibullah wrote in Radio Free Europe: “1) Yarmuhammet Orazgulyyew, who is running on a populist platform that calls for protecting social services and raising salaries and living standards, oversees the Power and Industry Ministry. He has been portrayed as an energetic and experienced manager capable of developing the oil and gas and agricultural sectors. [Source: Farangis Najibullah, Radio Free Europe, February 12, 2012]

2) Annageldi Yazmyradow, who heads the Water Management Ministry, has touted the need for clean drinking water for all. He has praised Berdymukhammedov's outstanding achievements. 3) Rejep Bazarow, deputy governor of the northern Dasoguz Province, was nominated by farm workers and has pledged to improve democracy based on Turkmen principles. He seeks to resolve water-resource issues in the region and to improve the agriculture sector.

4) Kakageldi Abdyllayew heads the Marygas directorate of the state gas company Turkmengaz. He has pledged to boost gas exports. 5) Gurbanmammet Mollanyyazow is the manager of Nebitgazabatlayys, the oil and gas repair department of the state oil concern Turkmennebit. He has pledged to continue current socioeconomic reforms, strengthen the economy, and to ensure future prosperity.

6) Saparmyrat Batyrow oversees a cotton mill in central Ahal Province. He has touted Turkmenistan's policy of neutrality as a model admired by the international community. He has made the development of the country's fuel and energy, agriculture, textile, transport, and tourism industries a priority. 7) Esendurdy Gayybow is the head of a construction company in Lebap Province in eastern Turkmenistan. He has praised achievements made by Turkmenistan in the social, economic, and political spheres, presumably under Berdymukhammedov's leadership.

“Turkmenistan's state-owned television channels gave airtime to each candidate to promote his election platform, but there were no television debates. The seven candidates challenging Berdymukhammedov have traveled to the provinces to meet with voters. The meetings were closed to the general public and only a selected group of smartly dressed public sector workers and students were allowed to attend.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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