According to the Turkmen government, the country is in the throes of a constitutional reform that will make the electoral process more democratic. But the changes are illusory and election candidates will continue to be hand-picked for their loyalty to the regime.
On October 25, the head of the country’s Central Electoral Committee, Murad Karryev, told a meeting of the Halk Maslahaty, a national-level assembly assigned more powers than the normal parliament or Majlis, that that constitutional reform was proceeding successfully, its aim being to create “popular rule” by allowing pluralist elections to local councils. Karryev said the reform emerged out of the July 23 elections to the lowest tier of council or “gengesh”, in which multiple candidates were allowed to stand for seats.
The change should be in place by December 3, when Turkmenistan holds the elections to district (etrap) and municipal councils.
Although in theory voters will for the first time have a choice about whom they elect to local councils, NBCentralAsia commentators doubt the change will result in a more democratic election system. In reality, they say, the principles will remain unchanged: the voters will be presented with candidates whom they do not know, and whose names are approved by the authorities and only notionally nominated by the public. The result is the appearance of pluralist elections, but not the substance.
Foreign commentators roundly criticised the July local elections, saying the way they were held in no way reflected true democratic standards.
In April 2006, when the new election rules were first outlined, opposition groups based abroad such as the Republican Party and the Vatan political movement, said local elections would only be truly free and fair when the representatives of the opposition could also take part.
“The main idea behind the constitutional reform is to deprive citizens of their right to free elections,” said Tajigul Begmedova, the head of the Turkmen Helsinki Fund for Human Rights, based outside the country.
Begmedova says the focus on local elections is a distraction from the real concern that President Saparmurat Niazov is head of state for life, so people have no right to choose a new leader. “The authorities occasionally suggest they might hold a presidential election, but this is in really a ploy to evade scrutiny by the international community,” she said.
Experts on constitutional law suggest that the main purpose of the constitutional reform is to reinforce the powers of the national Halk Maslahaty. Created in 2003, the Halk Maslahaty counts as the country’s supreme institution, and consists of 2,500 delegates from around the country who gather once or twice a year. It is chaired by President Niazov and is supposed to represent a “fourth branch of authority” alongside the executive, the Majlis and the judiciary.
According to Nurlan Sadykov, director of Kyrgyzstan’s Constitutional Policy Institute, the emergence of the Halk Maslahaty effectively destroyed the principle of the division of powers, since it includes representatives of the legislative, executive and judicial systems. The Halk Maslahaty has, for example, appropriated the function of appointing the head of the state, and ruled that all its directives have the same effect as laws.
Yet these decision-making powers are themselves illusory, as “all power is concentrated in the hands of the president, as head of the Halk Maslahaty”, said Sadykov. “He [Niazov] exerts influence in every area, appointing ministers and issuing orders that have to be carried out.”
The conclusion drawn by NBCentralAsia’s commentators is that the Turkmen constitution has always been based on autocratic principles, and this reform will only strengthen totalitarian rule and make it even easier for the authorities to abuse their powers.
(News Briefing Central Asia draws comment and analysis from a broad range of political observers across the region.)