ELECTIONS, POLITICS AND POLITICAL PARTIES IN TURKMENISTAN

ELECTIONS IN TURKMENISTAN

Voting age: 18 years of age; suffurage: universal. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Elections nominally are organized by the Central Election Commission, a rubber-stamp organization whose members are named by the Khalk Maslakhaty. In the presidential election of 1992, no opposition candidates were allowed to stand; in 1997 the presidential election was canceled by referendum; and in 1999 the parliament declared Niyazov president for life. Nevertheless, Niyazov had promised a new presidential election by 2010, in which he would not run. In the local elections of 2003 and 2006, all candidates were nominated by Niyazov’s administration or by the Ministry of National Security. In February 2007, a special election chose a successor to Niyazov. Library of Congress, February 2007 **]

Legislative elections: last held on December 15, 2013 (next to be held in December 2018). Election results: percent of vote by party - NA; seats by party - Democratic Party 47, Organization of Trade and Unions of Turkmenistan 33, Women's Union of Turkmenistan 16, Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs 14, Magtymguly Youth Organization 8, independents 7. All of these parties support President Berdimuhamidow. =

The rules about president elections and five year terms were largely ignored by Turkmenistan’s first president Niyazov, who had himself named "president for life" in 1999. The constitution of 1992 calls for the president to be elected directly to a maximum of two five-year terms. However, since the parliament named him president for life in 1999, Niyazov no longer was required to stand for re-election.

Turkmenistan has had only two presidential election in its 20-year history as an independent with more than one candidate. The first was held in February 2007, less than two months after Niyazov’s death, and the second was in 2012. After Niyazov’s death, Berdymukhammedov was installed as acting president. Following a tweak to a constitutional provision banning an acting president from participating in a presidential election, Berdymukhammedov was allowed to run in the 2007 poll. He won by a landslide — garnering 89 percent of the vote — over a field of five other candidates. All, including Berdymukhammedov, belonged to the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. [Source: Farangis Najibullah, Radio Free Europe, February 12, 2012]

See Elections Under Berdymukhammedov

Elections Under Niyazov

Niyazov was elected to the newly created position of president on October 27, 1990. He ran unopposed and received 98 percent of the vote. In the first election after independence, in 1992, not surprisingly he received 99.5 percent of the vote. In 1994, he held a rigged referendum to suspend the next election and extend his term to 2002. It passed with 99.9 percent of the vote. Only 17 citizens dared to vote against him. One of these ended up in a mental institution.

A parliamentary vote of 98.3 percent in 1999 exempted Niyazov from term limits, effectively allowing him to serve as “president for life.” He said has he would reconsider the issue in 2008 but died before that time.

In parliamentary elections in December 2004, polling stations were nearly empty. The 131 candidates vying for 50 seats were all members of Niyazov’s Democratic Party and all supported Niyazov’s policies and based their campaign on ideas presented in Niyazov’s book Rukhnama, . There were so few voters that there was some discussions of taking ballot boxes door to door to get people to vote.

In April 2003, 2.4 million were eligible to vote for a 65-member national people’s assembly and for 5,535 local councils. One 70-year-old voter told AFP, “There used to be a lot more singing and dancing but otherwise elections now are practically the same as in the Soviet era.”

Political Participation in Turkmenistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “Citizens did not have the ability to change their government through free and fair elections. The constitution declares the country to be a secular democracy in the form of a presidential republic. It calls for separation of powers among the branches of government but vests a disproportionate share of power in the presidency. The president’s power over the state continued to be nearly absolute. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Turkmenistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State \*\]

“In 2013 the government enacted a new electoral code, which governs the activities of the Central Election Committee, defines the rights of voters, and establishes election procedures. In December 2013 the government held national parliamentary elections, and for the first time a second political party, the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, competed for seats on a national scale. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) noted that the elections took place in a strictly controlled political environment characterized by a lack of respect for fundamental freedoms. The report noted also that, despite the existence of a second political party, voters did not have a genuine choice between political alternatives. \*\

“The law makes it extremely difficult for genuinely independent political parties to organize, nominate candidates, and campaign, since it grants the Ministry of Justice broad powers over the registration process and the authority to monitor party meetings. The law prohibits political parties based on religion, region, or profession as well as parties that “offend moral norms.” The law does not explain how a party could appeal its closure by the government. In May the government passed an NGO law that permits civil society organizations to put forth candidates for elected office. In September the government registered a third political party, the Agrarian Party. The government allowed the OSCE to provide expert commentary on the law and implemented some changes to its criminal code. State media covered the activities of President Berdimuhamedov, the Democratic Party, the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, the Agrarian Party, and trade and professional unions. \*\

“There were no independent political groups. The three registered political parties were the ruling Democratic Party (the former Communist Party of Turkmenistan), the progovernment Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, and the newly registered Agrarian Party, which was also progrovernment. The government did not officially prohibit membership in other political organizations, but there were no reports of persons who claimed membership in political organizations other than these three parties. Authorities did not allow opposition movements based abroad--including the National Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan, the Republican Party of Turkmenistan, and the Fatherland (Watan) Party--to operate within the country. \*\

Participation of Women and Minorities: There were 33 women in the 125-member parliament, including the speaker of parliament. Women served in other prominent government positions, including as deputy chairperson of parliament; vice premier of the cabinet of ministers for culture, television broadcasting, and the press; minister of education; and directors of the state archives. The government gave preference for appointed government positions to ethnic Turkmen, but ethnic minorities occupied some senior government positions. Members of the president’s Ahal-Teke tribe, the largest in the country, held the most prominent roles in cultural and political life.” \*\

Politics in Turkmenistan

Politics in an all the Central Asian states has been described as secretive and clannish. The political situation in Turkmenistan has been dominated by its two president Niyazov and Berdymukhammedov and has been characterized by friction between Communist apparatchiks loyal to the presidents and the traditionally powerful Turkmen tribes, clan and families.

The government operates much like an old Communist party through bosses in the work place and elsewhere. Constitution guarantees political freedom, but the former Communist Party, now the Democratic Party, dominates and retains same structure and propaganda machine as in Soviet era. Presidential cult of personality provides further domination. Small, weak opposition groups concentrate on single issues; some groups are outlawed. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Tribal and other kinship ties rooted in genealogies play a much smaller role than presumed by analysts who view Turkmen society as "tribal" and therefore not at a sophisticated political level. Nonetheless, clan ties often are reflected in patterns of appointments and networks of power. Regional and clan ties have been identified as the bases for political infighting in the republic. For example, in the early 1990s power bases pitted the Mary district chieftain Gurban Orazov against the Ashgabat millionaire and minister of agriculture Payzgeldi Meredov, and the Teke clan's hold on power through Niyazov conflicted with the Yomud clan's hold on the oil and gas industry through minister Nazar Soyunov. In July 1994, Niyazov removed both Meredov and Soyunov from office on the basis of evidence that the two ministers had misappropriated funds obtained from the sale of state-owned resources. To correct such problems, a Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations was formed to handle exports and imports, and a Control and Revision Commission was established to review contracts with foreign firms. *

In the mid- and late 1990s, some large-scale protests were stimulated by specific events. Some small underground political groups exist in Turkmenistan, and in 2003 four opposition parties in exile formed the Union of Democratic Forces, which is based in Vienna. The National Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan remained in opposition after the arrest of its leader, Boris Shikhmuradov, for complicity in the 2002 assassination attempt on the president.

Centers of Political Power

In 1994 members of the former Communist Party of Turkmenistan continued to fill the majority of government and civic leadership posts, and much of the ideologically justified Soviet-era political structure remained intact. Besides serving as head of the Democratic Party (as the reconstituted Communist Party of Turkmenistan is called) and chairman of the advisory People's Council and the Cabinet of Ministers, Niyazov also appoints the procurator general and other officers of the courts. In criticizing Turkmenistan's political leadership, experts have cited the single-party system, strict censorship, repression of political dissent, and the "cult of personality" that has formed around President Niyazov. Niyazov's name has been given to streets, schools, communal farms, and numerous other places; his portrait and sayings receive prominent public display; the country's mass media give him extensive exposure that always characterizes him in a positive light; and a law "Against Insulting the Dignity and Honor of the President" is in force. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

At the same time, Western and Russian criticism generally has revealed misunderstandings and stereotypes of the political and social dynamics of the region that dilute the authority of such evaluations. Beneath the surface of the presidential image, political life in Turkmenistan is influenced by a combination of regional, professional, and tribal factors. Regional ties appear to be the strongest of these factors; they are evident in the opposing power bases of Ashgabat, center of the government, and Mary, which is the center of a mafia organization that controls the narcotics market and illegal trade in a number of commodities. Although both areas are settled primarily by Turkmen of the Teke tribe, factions in Ashgabat still express resentment and distrust of those in Mary for failing to aid the fortress of Gokdepe against the 1881 assault that led to Russian control of the Turkmen khanates.

Political behavior also is shaped by the technocratic elites, who were trained in Moscow and who can rely on support from most of the educated professionals in Ashgabat and other urban areas. Most of the elites within the national government originate from and are supported by the intelligentsia, which also is the source of the few opposition groups in the republic. *

Political Parties in Turkmenistan

Political parties and leaders: 1) Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT) led by Kasymguly Babayew; 2)Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs or (PIE), led by Orazmammet Mammedow This party was registered on August 21, 2012. A law authorizing the registration of political parties went into effect in January 2012; unofficial, small opposition movements exist abroad; the three most prominent opposition groups-in-exile are A) the National Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan (NDMT), B) the Republican Party of Turkmenistan, and C) the Watan (Fatherland) Party. The NDMT was led by former Foreign Minister Boris SHIKHMURADOV until his arrest and imprisonment in the wake of the 25 November 2002 attack on President Niyazov’s motorcade [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Up until 2012 Turkmenistan had only one political party, the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. Although the constitution guarantees the right to form political parties, in fact the former Communist Party of Turkmenistan has retained the political control exercised by its predecessor. Opposition parties and other politically active groups have remained small and without broad support. The current president, Berdimukhamedov, asked his government to create some more parties...but analysts are highly skeptical that new parties would have any real independence.

True opposition parties are banned and exist only in exile. Opposition leaders have been arrested and harassed. Political opponents are persecuted. Unregistered parties that existed in 1993 including the Agzybirlik (Unity) Popular Front, the Democratic Party and Social Movement for Human Rights. Shirai Nurmuradov is poet who fled to Sweden to escape political persecution.

Democratic Party of Turkmenistan

The Democratic Party of Turkmenistan evolved from the Soviet-era Communist Party of Turkmenistan. The name was changed by Niyazov. In March 1992, it was declared the only legal political party. Because of Niyazov’s complete dominance of political life, the Democratic Party had little significance.

At the twenty-fifth congress of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan held in December 1991, the party was renamed the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, and Niyazov was confirmed as its chairman. According to its new program, the Democratic Party serves as a "mother party" that dominates political activity and yet promotes the activity of a loyal political opposition. Following a proposal of Niyazov, a party called the Peasant Justice Party, composed of regional secretaries of the Democratic Party, was registered in 1992 as an opposition party. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The Democratic Party of Turkmenistan essentially retains the apparatus of the former communist party. Party propaganda aims at explaining the need for preserving stability, civil peace, and interethnic accord. Party publications boast that its primary organizations operate in every enterprise, organization, and institution, and that its membership includes over 165,000, whereas critics claim that most citizens hardly are aware of the party's existence.

Opposition Parties

The 1992 constitution establishes rights concerning freedom of religion, the separation of church and state, freedom of movement, privacy, and ownership of private property. Both the constitution and the 1991 Law on Public Organizations guarantee the right to create political parties and other public associations that operate within the framework of the constitution and its laws. Such activity is restricted by prohibitions of parties that "encroach on the health and morals of the people" and on the formation of ethnic or religious parties. This provision has been used by the government to ban several groups. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In the mid-1990s, Niyazov described opposition groups as lacking both popular support and political programs offering constructive alternatives to existing policy. He has cited these qualities in disqualifying groups from eligibility to register as opposition parties. Insofar as such groups have the potential to promote ethnic or other tensions in society, they may be viewed as illegal, hence subject to being banned under the constitution. *

Given such an environment, opposition activity in Turkmenistan has been quite restrained. A small opposition group called Unity (Agzybirlik), originally registered in 1989, consists of intellectuals who describe the party program as oriented toward forming a multiparty democratic system on the Turkish model. Unity has devoted itself to issues connected with national sovereignty and the replacement of the communist political legacy. After being banned in January 1990, members of Unity founded a second group called the Party for Democratic Development, which focused on reforms and political issues. That party's increasing criticism of authoritarianism in the postindependence government led to its being banned in 1991. The original Unity group and its offspring party jointly publish a newspaper in Moscow called Daynach (Support), distribution of which is prohibited in Turkmenistan. In 1991 these two opposition groups joined with others in a coalition called Conference (Gengesh), aimed at effecting democratic reforms in the republic. *

Second Political Party Established in Turkmenistan

A second legal political party — the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs or (PIE), led by Orazmammet Mammedow — was registered on August 21, 2012. A law authorizing the registration of political parties went into effect in January 2012. Emily Albert wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Turkmenistan now has its second political party, ending the official monopoly of its Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. State media heralded the step as a “historic event” for the country.But many critics and outsiders are dubious the new party will actually challenge the vast powers of President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov,who took office after his predecessor's death in 2006. [Source: Emily Albert, Los Angeles Times, August 22, 2012 <<<]

“State media reported the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs had become possible after a new law allowed more parties to be formed. The fledgling party met Tuesday to approve its charter and choose top officials, the state news agency reported. It came into being after the recently reelected president had urged that new parties be formed “to democratize society.” Ending its decades under a single political party is seen as one sign that Berdimukhamedov is seeking to ease Turkmenistan's international isolation and win foreign investment for the energy-rich state. The country became infamous for authoritarian rule under its last president, Saparmurat Niyazov, who declared himself president for life and made his writings mandatory reading in schools. <<<

But the law allowing new political parties appears to cut out any existing opposition movements by requiring that they be located solely within Turkmenistan, according to the Agence France-Presse. One dissident group operating in exile, the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, reported that “a close friend of the Turkmen president … was assigned to establish the party.” Simply having competitors has not guaranteed a vigorous political showdown in Turkmenistan in the past: Berdimukhamedov won reelection this year with 97 percent of the vote, besting opponents from his own party, several of whom reportedly encouraged people to vote for him. Human rights groups say despite gestures toward more openness, abuses have continued under Berdimukhamedov, who “has maintained all the means and patterns of repression established by Niyazov,” according to the free speech organization Freedom House.

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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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