The campaign for the December 14 parliamentary election in Turkmenistan is so low-key that few people know who their candidates are and fewer still are interested, NBCentralAsia observers say.
On November 3, the state news agency TDH reported that 288 candidates had registered to compete for the 125 seats in the Mejlis.
The official version of events is that campaigning and voter-educations are in full swing, and the hopefuls are meeting the voters, who have been enthused and energised by the wide choice of candidates and the transparency of the electoral process.
On the ground, however, local observers say there are no candidate posters or leaflets to be seen.
State media outlets do discuss the election, but only in general terms, skating over the candidates and noting instead that the ballot will be monitored by observers from abroad, mainly the former Soviet Union.
Analysts say the only detailed information about candidates is to be found at the locations to be used as polling stations.
Meanwhile, the candidates are coming face to face with the electorate, but only within the confines of carefully stage-managed meetings held in state institutions.
A teacher at a school in the Dashoguz region of northern Turkmenistan said the headmaster simply ordered all his staff to go to one such voter meeting, and instructed each person to ask a question – carefully prepared in advance – to make for an “interesting debate”.
Unfortunately, she said, “One of the teachers asked an unscheduled question. The candidate was lost and didn’t know how to answer, and he turned to the people accompanying him. The meeting was brought to a halt without delay.”
Commentators in Turkmenistan say none of the supposedly open voter meetings are taking place in residential areas, even though the electoral legislation stipulates that they should.
“People are cut off from public life – no one comes to meet us,” said a woman selling medicines at a local market.
A media expert in Ashgabat phoned the city mayor’s office to find out where it was possible to meet his local candidates. The response was vague at best – an official from the mayor’s office recommended finding out more about the candidates on election day itself, when there would be posters giving a brief biography of each one.
“Come along on the 14th and vote for anyone you like,” said the official.
Local people do not appear to be showing much of an interest in the December ballot, since past experience of elections being tightly controlled by the authorities has made them mistrustful.
“I don’t know my candidate and I don’t want to, as he won’t have any real control but will just do as his superiors tell him,” said an elderly Russian-language teacher, who has worked as an election agent on previous occasions.
This woman believes the election campaign in no way reflects the democratic terms in which President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov has described the polls.
“In Turkmenistan there are none of the preconditions for democratic elections, so it would be naive to expect any real campaigning,” she said.