Last Sunday’s presidential elections in Turkmenistan did not surprise, as some voters supported a known quantity and others decided it was not worth it to show up at the polls, report NBCentralAsia observers.
The elections, called after the authoritarian ruler Saparmurat Niazov died suddenly on December 21 last year, attracted more than 98 per cent of voters according to official figures. Some independent analysts questioned this number.
The Central Election Committee will reveal the ballot results on February 14, although few are hanging on tenderhooks given that acting president Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has been the consistent favourite.
Despite a well-advertised election campaign involving six candidates, foreign observers did not monitor the poll, though a small team of OSCE and UN representatives formally visited central polling stations in the capital city Ashgabat. Local election observers consisted of officials and state employees.
Officials were present at each of the 1625 polling stations across Turkmenistan, noting “a high level of organisation” that “matched local legislation and international standards”.
Even though this was the first presidential election in Turkmenistan with more than one candidate, NBCA observers in Ashgabat have said that this election was virtually no different to previous ones under Niazov.
Young first-time voters were given a book of the “Rukhnama”, a compilation of moral guidelines written by the late president, secret service officers were on duty at all polling stations, and, instructed by the authorities, university principles and school headteachers made rounds in local villages forcing people to cast their ballot.
“They hammered on my door at 11 in the morning and demanded that I go to vote immediately,” a 35-year-old Ashgabat resident told NBCentralAsia.
According to Tajigul Begmedova, chair of the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, an émigré organisation based in Bulgaria, whose activists unofficially monitored the elections, voter turnout was low in rural areas.
Voting apathy was largely caused by a sense that the ballot’s outcome was predetermined, says Begmedova. She recalls what one of the voters told an observer, “[We have] no interest at all. Everything has been decided for us. We don’t know who these candidates are, we didn’t nominate them. This is why I didn’t even plan to go. Me and my family, as well as my friends, spent the day at home.”
At the same time, it appears that some Turkmen, polled by NBCentralAsia, did made a conscious choice. “He [Berdymukhammedov] is the only one whose face shows some traces of intellect,” said one elderly librarian.
Some look forward to seeing Berdymukhammedov fulfill his election promises, hoping for pension and salary rises, access to the internet and education reform.
We “picked the one who is already ruling the country”, said voters referring to the clear favourite.
(News Briefing Central Asia draws comment and analysis from a broad range of political observers across the region.)