Turkmenistan votes in one-sided presidential poll


Voting in the country of over five million people began at 7:00 am (0200 GMT) and will continue until polling stations close at 7:00 pm (1400 GMT), the central electoral commission confirmed.

Turks 350x210

Citizens of Turkmenistan went to the polls on Sunday for a presidential vote expected to further tighten incumbent strongman Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov's hold over the gas-rich Central Asian country.
Voting in the country of over five million people began at 7:00 am (0200 GMT) and will continue until polling stations close at 7:00 pm (1400 GMT), the central electoral commission confirmed.
Berdymukhamedov, 59, faces eight other candidates including subordinate regional officials, the director of a government-owned oil refinery and a representative of the Central Asian country's state agribusiness complex.
But these other men are viewed as token opponents for the former dentist and health minister who rose to power suddenly following the shock death of predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006.
"Out of the nine I only know and understand the current president," Aiperi Tashliyeva, a 48-year-old housewife living in the capital Ashgabat, told AFP.
"I do not know on what merits or for what reasons the others became candidates. Therefore, I will vote for Berdymukhamedov," she said.
Recent footage from state television saw Berdymukhamedov in relaxed form during a low key pre-election campaign.
One of his public appearances showed him decked in casual attire as he impressed factory workers by strumming along on the guitar to a song state media claims he wrote himself. 
The grand pledge at the centre of his campaign is to "ensure the prosperity of independent, neutral Turkmenistan in the third millennium".
One-sided votes are typical in Central Asia, a Muslim-majority ex-Soviet region politically close to Russia and China, where reigning presidents are usually expected to die in power.
The ballot in Turkmenistan comes after Berdymukhamedov signed off on constitutional changes that analysts saw as removing barriers to his lifelong rule.
That fix extended presidential terms from five to seven years and abandoned the upper age limit for candidates.
"These regimes have a logic of their own and they very much follow that logic," said Annette Bohr, an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia programme at Chatham House think tank.
If anything, Bohr said, Turkmenistan's regime is "even more repressive and personalist" than those found in neighbouring Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
"Berdymukhamedov is predictable in that he will do what he has to do in order to perpetuate that regime," Bohr told AFP by telephone.
- Rights crackdown, economic strain -
Like Turkmenistan's first president, Niyazov, who died of a reported heart attack aged 66, Berdymukhamedov has presided over a flowering leadership cult that draws comparisons with the likes of North Korea.
Both men are honoured by golden statues in Ashgabat, where natural gas wealth is flaunted in lavish, grandiose white marble architecture, even as other parts of the country suffer poverty.
In a February pre-election brief, New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch said Berdymukhamedov has taken "a few modest steps to reverse some of Niyazov's damaging policies" while retaining the state's repressive character.
Although citizens now have access to the internet, unlike under Niyazov, it is tightly controlled, and the government "has waged a campaign" to cut citizens off from foreign satellite television, according to HRW.
Ahead of the vote, "voters cannot express their views about all candidates in an open manner and without fear," the group noted. 
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders warned meanwhile on Friday that the handful of independent journalists in the country are "being subjected to an unprecedented crackdown" as the country prepares to host a showpiece sporting event.
"As Turkmenistan prepares to host the Asian Olympic Games in September, the world cannot remain indifferent to the contempt that its government displays for its international obligations," the group said in a statement.
Heavy spending on infrastructure related to the indoor games and other frivolous construction projects has continued in Turkmenistan, despite the plunge from 2014 in prices for hydrocarbons that make up over 90 percent of its exports.
Although Turkmenistan sits on the world's fourth largest natural gas reserves, it has failed to diversify its economy and remains heavily reliant on exports to China.
At the beginning of 2015 the government devalued the manat currency by 19 percent, while Berdymukhamedov has publicly mused on the need to raise tariffs for water, gas and electricity, all free under Niyazov.