The publication of a new draft constitution for Turkmenistan has so far failed to provoke the kind of public discussion the authorities asked for.
President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov spoke about key points of the document in a speech broadcast on national television on July 21, and the draft itself was published in the newspapers the next day.
In his speech, given at a meeting of a special commission that has been drafting the constitution since April, the president said the public consultation process should enhance the document with input from people’s “wisdom and experience”.
One of the main changes to the constitution is to do away with the Halk Maslahaty or People’s Council, an unwieldy assembly of some 2,500 people convened occasionally to approve important legislation and constitutional matters. It is an important change, since technically the Halk Maslahaty stands above the Mejlis, a conventional standing parliament with elected members.
As Berdymuhammedov said in his speech, some of the Halk Maslahaty’s powers will go to the Mejlis, and others to him as president.
The Mejlis will be expanded from 65 to 125 members.
One notable omission from initial drafts is that the term in office of national presidents – including Berdymuhammedov, elected in February 2007 – has not been increased from the current five years. In May, the idea was floated of extending the period to seven years.
The head of state does, however, acquire increased powers to appoint regional governors and mayors directly. At present they are elected by a show of hands by provincial and municipal councils.
Other mechanisms concerning the appointment of ministers and judges remain unchanged, and government is not made accountable to parliament.
The draft constitution also legitimises market economics, requiring the state to support private enterprise.
The final version of the constitution is supposed to be adopted by September.
NBCentralAsia observers say that despite calls for a public discussion, Turkmenistan’s population does not seem to be particularly interested.
Across the country, they say, there is little activity related to the reform, and little apparent interest in what it means. Observers say the years of stagnation under Berdymuhammedov’s predecessor, Saparmurad Niazov, have left people convinced that the powers that be make all the decisions.
“Many people didn’t even open the newspaper pages containing the entire text of the draft, let alone read it or take part in discussions. The public in Turkmenistan is not active,” said a media-watcher.
Nor, it has to be said, have people received much in the way of encouragement – no posters or banners advertising the reform are visible in the streets; no leaflets explaining the changes have been handed out; and the discussion programmes aired on state television have been less than scintillating.
A straw poll of people in Turkmenistan reflected attitudes ranging from indifference to deep cynicism about the prospects for real political change.
A teacher from Kone-Urgench in northern Turkmenistan said, “I haven’t read the draft new constitution because I’ve heard that much of it remains unchanged. The various branches of authority will not really be separated or given independence. The president remains head of the cabinet [prime minister] and continues to appoint and dismiss judges.”
An environmentalist was pessimistic about how real the rights enshrined in the document are. “It doesn’t look like there will be significant amendments,” he said. “Rights and freedoms are declared in this draft, but it doesn’t say anywhere that they correspond to those in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
A lawyer from Ashgabat agreed, concluding that “the draft is purely declarative, and it inspires no confidence in me”.
Other people suggested that the abolition of the Halk Maslahaty was a plus, not because it marked a step forwards in terms of political reform but because it would lead to major savings in government expenditure.
“They used to spend millions of manats on gifts for the elders who turned up to give orations and who’d vote for anything the authorities had decided on. Now that money could be given to the less-well off,” said a member of one of the security agencies.
(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service is resuming, covering only Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan for the moment.) http://www.iwpr.net/?p=btm&s=b&o=345957&apc_state=henb