If the president is going to win anyway, why does he feel a need to talk democracy and pluralism?
Turkmenistan’s president Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov is standing for a second term on February 12. Since the outcome is a foregone conclusion, IWPR asked Inga Sikorskaya, senior editor for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, to explain why Berdymuhammedov is even bothering to campaign, why he has invited candidates to oppose him, and why he has promised to allow more than the current one political party to exist.
Why is Berdymuhammedov making this show of interest in political pluralism? The president sees this pre-election as an opportunity to publicise his ostensibly democratic intentions, as he’s aware that at times like this, the international community pays slightly more attention than usual to what’s going on in Turkmenistan.
As some other Central Asian states undergo political change, Berdymuhammedov wants to show that his country, too, is shifting towards democracy. Kyrgyzstan elected a new president last October last year, in the first ever peaceful handover of power in Central Asia. This month’s election in Kazakstan ensured that two more political parties – albeit both loyal to the authorities – could enter a parliament previously occupied solely by the presidential party.
Secondly, it gives him an opportunity to try out some new electoral practices. Forming groups of citizens to nominate candidates and passing a law allowing a multiparty system are unprecedented moves. It’s important to Berdymuhammedov to gauge the reaction from voters, and to test their loyalty to him. He may also hope these changes will increase his support, as some voters may still be swayed by initiatives that look like reform.
Third, even though they are token gestures, they may be a way of initiating more substantive changes in a gradual, controlled manner. This may reflect a desire to stave off the kind of upset that Arab countries have been experiencing as their populations run out of patience and oust authoritarian rulers.
What’s the significance of Berdymuhammedov’s call for a multiparty system? It is unlikely this signifies a move towards a more pluralist system. The conditions for that just don’t exist in Turkmenistan. Passing legislation on a multiparty system doesn’t mean it will actually happen. Last summer, Berdymuhammedov invited opposition groups abroad to come back and compete in the elections, but he did nothing to make that possible. Turkmenistan’s constitution contains guarantees of rights and freedoms which don’t exist in reality.
Instead of genuine pluralism, we are likely to see one or two parties emerging that have been created by the leadership. We see this in neighbouring Uzbekistan, where artificially-created pro-regime parties were brought into parliament to create the appearance of pluralism.
If there is any positive aspect to these moves by Berdymuhammedov, it’s that they may encourage opposition groups in exile, which are weak and limited in what they can do, to starting mobilising.
The OSCE has refused to monitor the presidential election because it doesn’t meet any of the requirements for a free and fair ballot. If the outcome is so clear, why are there several candidates? The whole electoral process has been tightly controlled by the authorities. They have allowed seven other candidates through, all of them handpicked and vetted for loyalty test. One look at their election programmes is enough to tell you that they are there just to shore up support for the incumbent.
It’s all an empty gesture designed to create the impression of democratic reforms. Over the last five years, Berdymuhammedov will no doubt have been watching how long-serving leaders in other countries engineer landslide victories while seeming to allow multiple candidates.
Berdymuhammedov says he wants to transform Turkmenistan into an industrial power. What has he done to achieve this aim by diversifying the economy beyond oil and gas? He launched his election campaign by repeating a pledge to turn this largely agrarian country into an industrialised state, with new factories, high-tech farming, and a bigger private sector. However, none of these promises is backed up by anything solid. Nor it is easy to imagine anything changing, as nothing gets done without Berdymuhammedov’s personal approval. He alone decides singlehandedly on every deal and contract that gets signed.
Inga Sikorskaya is IWPR senior editor for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. www.iwpr.net