Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Turkmen Election a “Mockery”

Voters will have little choice in the parliamentary ballot, and still less hope of affecting change in the repressive republic.
By Murad Novruzov

The upcoming parliamentary election in Turkmenistan is being viewed with suspicion by the international community – and deep apathy by the republic’s own citizens.


The former Soviet republic is due to go the polls on December 19, but analysts have poured scorn on the process, dismissing it as a waste of time which is designed to give the appearance of democracy.


Saparmurat Niazov, who likes to be called Turkmenbashi or “Leader of the Turkmen”, has been named president for life in an isolationist republic where people live in abject poverty despite abundant natural gas resources.


Turkmenbashi’s regime is characterised by his personality cult and a series of increasingly outlandish restrictions on his people, as well as a ruthless crackdown on any opposition.


In spite of scepticism from international observers and a sense of indifference among the population, the state-run newspapers are currently running advertisements for the upcoming ballot which trumpet the “openness, honesty and competition” of the process.


The one political party that is allowed to function – the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan – is gearing up for a repeat of the 1999 election, in which it won all 50 seats in parliament, and elected the president as its speaker.


There are no candidates campaigning on issues such as wages and living conditions, crime or drug addiction; instead, all are running on a similar promise – to serve their Leader as best they can.


And when candidates meet the voters at compulsory meetings held in state institutions, they can only assure them that if elected they will focus on “practical use of the ideas of the Ruhnama, and the rebirth of spiritual and moral values of the Turkmen people”. The Ruhnama is a book of thoughts by Turkmenbashi which has been imposed on the public as mandatory reading. Volume Two was published this year.


Every one of the 139 candidates standing for election to the parliament’s 50 seats is an ethnic Turkmen, giving the republic’s significant Uzbek, Kazak, Russian and Azerbaijani populations no chance of representation.


Erika Dailey of the Open Society Institute’s Turkmenistan Project told IWPR that the lack of choice available to voters, and the fact that the ballot will not make any difference to the way the republic is governed made the election irrelevant.


“We don’t take them seriously and do not monitor them,” she said. “The Turkmen election is much worse than an empty exercise. It is a mockery of the citizenry.”


The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, had been planning to send observers, but when it tried to send in a preliminary fact-finding mission it found it was unable to get visas.


Dailey expressed surprise that OSCE should feel it necessary to carry out a needs assessment mission for “a one-party country” where the public has no real voice.


“I think it is regrettable that the OSCE gave this election the dignity of acknowledgement when it is nothing but a violation of political rights, a ritual played out since Soviet times,” she said.


But the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ODIHR, told IWPR that it was important to make an attempt to scrutinise the Turkmen election process.


“We would have to see the situation for ourselves, to go there and carry out a needs assessment before a decision is made [whether or not to observe the elections], but we do not have visas,” said ODIHR spokesperson Urdur Gunnarsdottir.


When deciding whether to send election observers to a particular country, ODIHR usually sends in a team beforehand to talk to the authorities, non-government organisations and the media.


Even if it had been granted permission to enter the country – which it was not – analysts believe it would have encountered difficulties since there are no independent media or non-government they could talk to.


Gunnarsdottir added, “We would [also] need access to all levels of the election process, and we cannot have that without the willingness of the authorities.”


In any event, the Turkmen government simply ignored the ODIHR’s request for permission to send a needs assessment team.


Without any say in how their republic is run, Turkmenistan’s people show little interest in the political process and many prefer to ignore it altogether. The sense of apathy contrasts with the official turnout figures released after the last parliamentary election in 2000, which suggested that 99.9 per cent of eligible voters had cast their ballots.


IWPR carried out a straw poll in the capital Ashgabat, where people could be expected to be better informed than elsewhere about the nature of the upcoming poll and the politicians standing for election.


More than half of those questioned said they were unaware that there was to be an election at all, and many of the better informed respondents said they saw no point in voting.


Derya, a young man currently scraping a living as a bus driver, expressed scepticism when asked if he planned to use his vote on December 19, “What’s the point in voting in elections if doing so makes no difference, and when the ‘right’ candidates are sent to parliament with a 99.9 per cent turnout every time?”


One Ashgabat woman, who did not want to give her name, expressed cynicism about the whole procedure, “The authorities give themselves a holiday and my husband is not paid his salary for a couple of months, because all the budget money goes towards organising these elections.”


A group of people in their early twenties said that they didn’t know about the elections, and weren’t very interested in the prospect. When asked what they thought the flags and bunting currently hanging from buildings in the city centre signified, they replied, “There’s probably going to be some sort of holiday.”


Actual turnout in the 2000 election is believed to have been very low, and the December 19 ballot is expected to be even worse.


An Ashgabat polling station worker, who asked not to be named, described average turnout last time as “catastrophic”, and freely admitted to tampering with the ballot boxes in an attempt to hide the reality from the authorities.


“Fewer and fewer people come to vote every year, and those who do are state workers who are forced to do so by their employers,” she said.


“A few years ago, after voting at the polling station was over, we went around people’s homes with a ballot box in an attempt to boost the number of votes cast.


“We don’t bother with that any more – these days we just cast the votes ourselves,” she added cheerfully.


Murad Novruzov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Ashgabat.


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