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Hopes Low for "Democratic" Turkmen Local Elections

By News Briefing Central Asia

Local government elections in Turkmenistan in December are likely to be as undemocratic as previous polls, observers say.

The Central Election Commission met on October 9 to discuss preparations for the December 5 elections to regional, district and town councils known as “halk maslahaty” or people’s assemblies.

The 40-member councils are elected once every four years.

The news website, which acts as a mouthpiece for the regime, said the local elections would be democratic and offer a choice of candidates, and would be in line with international standards. “Particular attention will be paid to working with the media,” the report said of the election campaign.

A parliamentary election held in 2008, the year after President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov came to power, failed to meet expectations raised by hints that the government was moving towards liberalisation. In the event, the vote was carefully orchestrated.

One of the ideas floated by Berdymuhammedov was a kind of devolution where local government would have the right to submit ideas for rural development to the national parliament.

In June 2010, the law was changed to give local executives more powers and loosen the grip that regional governors exerted over them.

But critics of the reforms say the dividing line between elected assemblies and appointed local executives remains blurred, and everything is still controlled from the top down.

"The state controls everything," a lawyer in the capital Ashgabat said. "In these so-called alternative elections, the winning candidates will be exclusively those the authorities have put forward."

A serving member of a district council in eastern Turkmenistan agrees with this view, saying the president has representatives on the ground who will ensure the desired outcome. "Everything will be as he [Berdymuhammedov] says," he said.

Human rights defenders say the early phases of the election campaign have not received much publicity. The Central Election Commission has announced that local election bodies have already been set up and lists of election observers approved, but it is unclear how this selection process happened.

"We’re getting reports that it’s all happening according to a well-tried plan,” Tajigul Begmedova, director of the Turkmen Helsinki Fund based in Bulgaria, said, citing information her group had received from the country.

Although the law sets out principles for a democratic electoral process, few people are aware of this or, if they are, understand what it might mean.

"The laws aren’t explained to people; they’re kept under wraps," a judge in Kopetdag said. "

A journalist working for state television said election day coverage should be live, as it is in Russia. "Some voters watch Russian TV channels on satellite dishes and they wonder why [live coverage] isn’t possible here."

A prospective voter dismissed this idea, saying the fact that people voted did not mean they had a free choice.

"Can unfree people vote freely?" he asked. "They will always be looking over their shoulders for fear of the consequences, which can include many forms of pressure like imprisonment or dismissal."

This article was produced as part of IWPR’s News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.