The Turkmen authorities have declared the December 3 local elections a resounding success, saying they met international electoral standards. NBCentralAsia commentators cast doubt on this claim, saying the ballot did not offer voters a real choice.
These elections were the first time a choice of candidates was on offer for district- and municipal-level councils. Officials said turnout was 97 per cent. Similar multi-candidate elections were held for the gengeshes, the lowest tier of elected councils, on July 23 this year. This new style of election is underpinned by a law passed last year.
The Central Electoral Committee said 6,141 people stood for 2,640 council seats across the country, implying that there was a choice in every constituency.
However, external commentators and sources inside Turkmenistan tell NBCentralAsia that the “choice” was completely orchestrated by the authorities.
“The authorities were not worried about these elections, since the candidates had been handpicked,” said Tajigul Begmedova, the head of the Turkmen Helsinki Fund, a human rights group based abroad.
Many candidates were unaware they had been nominated until they were told the organisation they worked for had put their name forward.
“One candidate was summoned by her boss and sent off to deliver a speech to the voters. Then she was told to write her own campaign programme – not for distribution to members of the public, but merely for form’s sake,” said a source in Ashgabat.
Although all candidates were pre-selected and vetted before hand, the authorities made an efforts to guide voters towards the favourite. In one Ashgabat constituency, for example there were two candidates. One of them, Davlet Begiev, secretary of the official Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, was publicised through press releases. His rival, the head of a kindergarten, got no publicity.
NBCentralAsia commentators say the elections seem to have been neither transparent nor fair, and international standards were ignored.
Procedural abuses include the practice of voting on behalf of one’s family members, and using someone else’s passport as identification. Electoral officers are also reported to have re-assigned ballot papers to ensure the right candidate won.
Tajigul Begmedova, the head of the Turkmen Helsinki Fund, a human rights group based abroad, said that when turnout figures were looking low on election day, the Central Election Committee ordered staff to go out and bring in voters who were unable to travel. But instead of doing this, they simply cast ballots on behalf of these people.
This claim was supported by an anonymous source based in the capital, who said, “In Ashgabat, people used to come to door to door with a ballot-box. They’ve now stopped doing this – the election commission simply fills in the ballots itself.”
The consensus view among NBCentralAsia observers is that a significant proportion of voters no longer take part in such elections of such level. The only reason they will go to a polling station is to buy things or listen to music, as the authorities arrange fairs and concerts on election day.
(News Briefing Central Asia draws comment and analysis from a broad range of political observers across the region.)