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Turkmenistan - Politics

Turkmenistan is an authoritarian state that was long dominated by its first president, Saparmyrat Niyazov, who died in late 2006. Niyazov faced no significant domestic oppositionn, nor does his successor Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, who was "elected" in 2007. Reporters Without Borders ranked the Muslim-majority country of 5.5 million people 176 out of 178 countries in its 2010 press freedom index. The law characterizes any opposition to the government as treason. Those convicted of treason face life imprisonment and are ineligible for amnesty or reduction of sentence. In the past the government arrested and filed charges against those expressing critical or differing views on economic or criminal charges instead of charging its critics with treason.

Turkmenistan is often described as opaque, with a government with an inscrutable decisionmaking process. While still very insular, with few external points of reference, it is not opaque. The system has rules, although this fact is not readily apparent to those with only a passing knowledge of the Turkmen. Understanding these rules, however, makes it easier to comprehend what is going on.

The Turkmen elite is weak, has limited resources, and lacks charismatic figures. Top officials in Turkmenistan suffer from the fly-by-night syndrome more than their counterparts in any other post-Soviet republic. In Turkmenbashi's government a minister occupied his post no more than half a year on average, after which he was ousted, sent to prison, or fled abroad. It is enough to recall that parliament speakers were changed four times from the early 2001 to November 2002. None of the claimants to power have great resources, especially as regards social support. The Turkmen political class rested on multiple family and regional interrelations, but after Boris Shikhmuradov, Khadaiberdy Orazov, Nurmukhammed Khanamov, and other "nomenclature oppositionists" were removed from power, their relatives were ousted from top echelons of government and big business.

While perhaps not rational or logical to many outsiders, the system has its own rules, which it follows, religiously. Rather than opaque, it is better to describe Turkmenistan as translucent, like a bathroom window. You can tell if the light is on or not. You know if someone is inside. You can tell when the shadows move. With time, given the light and shadow, you can deduce what is going on. Yet, there is just enough hidden to serve its purpose.

Following the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan declared its independence on October 27, 1991. Saparmurat Niyazov became the first president of the new republic and remained the supreme decision-maker. Neither independent political activity nor opposition candidates are allowed in Turkmenistan. The Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT) was the only legal political party. Political gatherings are illegal unless government sanctioned, and the citizens of Turkmenistan do not have the means to change their government democratically. 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.

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.

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.

While the constitution provides for freedom of the press, there is virtually no freedom of the press or of association. The government has full control of all media and restricts foreign publications. International satellite TV is available.

The population is 89% Sunni Muslim. The constitution provides for freedom of religion and does not establish a state religion; however, in practice, the Government continues to monitor all forms of religious expression. Amendments to the law on religious organizations adopted in March 2004 reduced membership requirements from 500 to five. All groups must register in order to gain legal status with the Government. The Government limits the activities of unregistered religious congregations by prohibiting them from gathering publicly, proselytizing, and disseminating religious materials.

A Soviet-style command economy greatly limits equality of opportunity. Industry and services are almost entirely provided by government or government-owned entities, while agriculture is dominated by a state order system. Women face particularly strong discrimination in all social aspects, and their freedom is restricted due to traditional social-religious norms. All citizens are required to carry internal passports, noting place of residence, and movement into and out of the country, as well as within its borders, is difficult.

Corruption continues to be pervasive. Power is concentrated in the president; the judiciary is wholly subservient to the regime, with all judges appointed for 5-year terms by the president without legislative review. The president routinely dismisses cabinet members and other government officials on charges of corruption and they are subsequently tried in secret trials and frequently imprisoned or sentenced to internal exile. These dismissals, however, are often politically motivated and have little impact on the culture of corruption.

The government did not permit opposition movements outside the country, including the National Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan, the Republican Party of Turkmenistan, and the Fatherland (Watan) Party, to operate within the country. Members of the exiled Turkmen opposition, including former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, met in Vienna in 2002 and announced the formation of the Turkmen Democratic Opposition. They accused the Turkmen leadership of gross violation of human rights.

On November 25, 2002, an armed attack against President Niyazov's motorcade was made and the Government of Turkmenistan moved quickly against perceived sources of opposition. There were widespread reports of human rights abuses committed by officials investigating the attack, including torture and punishment of families of the accused. The Government of Turkmenistan denied the charges, but refused to allow independent observers at trials, to accept a mandatory OSCE fact-finding mission, or to permit ICRC access to prisons. It also instituted new measures to stifle dissent and limit contact with the outside world.

2004 Elections

All candidates in the December 2004 parliamentary elections, at which there were no foreign observers, were his supporters. President Niyazov retained his monopoly on political power until his death on December 21, 2006. The Halk Maslahaty (People's Council) decided on December 26 to select Niyazov's successor through public elections on February 11, 2007. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov became president through a public election in which the population eagerly participated, even though the election did not meet international standards.

President Berdimuhamedov made a public commitment to bring Turkmenistan's laws and practices -- including those relating to human rights -- up to international standards. On his order, the country's legal, human rights and legislative bodies rewrote numerous laws and codes, including on religion and public organizations, family, criminal, and criminal procedure codes. Parliamentary elections, held in December 2008, were assessed by the OSCE as neither free nor fair and elicited little public interest. Although the government was making progress in overhauling Turkmenistan's laws, human rights practices continued to fall far short of international standards.

While most of Turkmenistan's media remains state-controlled, President Berdimuhamedov emphasized the need for reform, calling for more creativity and more international and political news to better inform readers and viewers. Simultaneously, however, he noted that a principal role of the media is to stimulate patriotism and support for reform efforts, and there is no official discussion of allowing independent media to develop. Within this context, state media have shown gradually increasing openness, but still much uncertainty and a lack of capacity in attempting to fulfill the president's demands. Both broadcast and print media have started to cover a wider range of topics, but would not even think of challenging or criticizing government policies. These limits are a result of strict self-censorship -- no one wants to be the first to try an "unapproved" innovation.

2012 Elections

Voters in Turkmenistan headed to the polls in February 2012. They were expected to re-elect President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. Five days before registration of presidential candidates ended, a law allowing opposition candidates to register came into force. The law did not affect the dominance of the presidents party. There weret numbers of candidates who are in opposition to the president, whose personalities are not of great interest to the main electorate groups. And there is the candidate who handles the country's budget, who handles administrative resources. The president felt confident that he will win enough votes to avoid a runoff.

Nearly three million Turkmen are allowed to vote, that is about half of the population. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) says it will not send vote monitors to the region due to limited freedoms and lack of political competition. Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was sworn in for a second term as the president of Turkmenistan on 17 February 2012 following his election. Berdymukhamedov swept the February 12 elections with 97 percent of the vote. Seven other candidates had praised him in the run-up to the vote.

2017 Elections

Residents of Turkmenistan elect the president for a term of seven years. The incumbent President, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, is completing his second term in the office. A total of nine people stood for election in 2017, three of them for the first time in the modern history of Turkmenistan put forward by political parties. Democratic Party was represented Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs by Chairman of the Joint Stock Commercial Bank "Rysgal", the deputy of the Mejlis (Parliament) Bekmyrat Atalyev, Agrarian by the chairman of the Mary velayat (regional) Committee of this organization Durdygylych Orazov.

The initiative group of citizens to participate in the elections put forward six candidates: Deputy governor (head) of the Mary velayat Jumanazar Annan, the Director Seydi oil refinery, the deputy of the Mejlis of Ramadan Durdyyev, deputy governor of Dashoguz province Meretdurdy Gurbanov, head of the Directorate of Economy and Development of Akhal province Serdar Dzhelilov, Director General of the production association "Garabogazsulfat" State concern "Turkmenhimiya" Suleiman Nurnepesov and deputy chairman of the State association of food industry Maksat Annanepesov.

But the country still has no real opposition parties and that political dissenters are routinely imprisoned or placed in psychiatric hospitals.

News and information services are strictly controlled and monopolized by the state, and access to information is limited. There are no private or independent electronic media. There are seven nationwide state television channels, including a music channel, and four state radio stations. In addition, some 40 newspapers are in circulation.

All of the candidates were granted free of charge and on equal terms airtime on the main TV channels and printed on the pages of the site national, regional and metropolitan newspapers. Each of the candidates could use to present their programs of 370 minutes of airtime on TV "Altyn Asyr", "Turkmenistan", "Miras" and "Yashlyk", as well as an additional 225 minutes of four channels. At the same time President Berdymukhamedov gave his rivals airtime.

But state media gave little coverage to the other eight candidates' election campaigns, occasionally showing brief clips of meetings with voters. Berdymukhammedov, on the other hand, enjoyed blanket media coverage in frequent appearances in cities and towns across the sprawling, sparsely populated nation of 5.3 million.

During the voting on the election of the President of Turkmenistan on 12 February 2017, the representatives of the OSCE, CIS, SCO, UN and OIC, appear in the list of observers from Turkey, Iran, UAE, Afghanistan, China, the Republic of Korea, Japan, India, Austria and the USA. Turkmenistan for the election built about 10 thousand white with gold ornament prefabricated cabins. The design of the cubicles provide a a cover, and a door. Inside pasted detailed instructions for voting, procured replacement handles. "At 17:00 local time (15:00 MSK) in the elections of President of Turkmenistan voted 3 million 40 thousand 779 people or 94.17% of those included in the electoral lists" said the Central Commission for Elections and Referenda (CEC). The voter lists made 3,223,455 people.

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the authoritarian president of gas-rich Turkmenistan, secured a third term in office by winning 97.69 percent of the vote in the February 12 election, according to the Central Election Commission. The commission put the turnout at more than 97 percent of eligible voters.

2018 Elections

Turkmenistan's parliamentary elections have been a farce from the start. It makes little difference who wins seats, since Turkmenistan's parliament is a rubber-stamp body for the country's president. These parliamentary elections were not held in December, as all the previous five parliamentary elections have been (1994, 1999, 2004, 2008, and 2013). No reason was given for the change; but with Turkmenistan facing the worst economic crisis in its 26-year history, there might be a desire to get the elections over before major changes -- possibly a long-overdue currency devaluation, for example -- were implemented.

Election campaigns in Turkmenistan started 04 December 2017. Formation of election commissions started in Turkmenistan within the preparation for the March 25, 2018 election of candidates running for seats in parliament and local governing bodies, the countrys Central Election Commission said in a message Dec. 27.

As many as 240 electoral districts (40 in each province and Ashgabat city) have been created for the election of MPs in Turkmenistan. For the election of members of the district and city councils, a total of 1,260 electoral districts (20 in each district and city) have been created in Turkmenistan. Political parties, public organizations, as well as initiative groups of citizens organize meetings to nominate their representatives, mainly specialists of various sectors of the national economy, to be included in the election commissions, the message said.

Turkmenistan's Central Election Commission has registered 284 candidates to compete for the 125 seats in Turkmenistan's Mejlis (parliament). Most of the candidates are from the three registered political parties -- the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT, formerly the Communist Party); the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, founded in 2012; and, making its first appearance in parliamentary elections, the Agrarian Party, founded in 2014 -- although public initiative groups are fielding a small number of candidates.

The latter two parties were arguably formed to create the illusion of multiparty elections. Both parties support President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's policies. Neither has proposed any initiatives and, in fact, the two parties are rarely mentioned at all in state media except at election time. The same is true of the DPT.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov, President Berdymukhammedov's only son age 36, is already a member of Turkmenistan's parliament. He won a seat in snap elections on November 20, 2016. According to Turkmenistan's constitution, the speaker of the parliament is the second-highest post in the government, the person who takes over as president if the serving president is unable to perform the duties of office.

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