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Turkmenistan: Election Talk Postponed
After the Turkmenistan’s People’s Council dropped a debate on presidential elections from its agenda, analysts are asking whether the country’s leaders has had a sudden change of heart, or whether he was never serious about looking for a way to step down.
The election issue was the first item to be voted on at the People’s Council or Khalk Maslakhaty – a broad congress with about 2,500 members which meets about once a year and is superior in status to parliament.
The motion was put by the head of the country’s electoral commission, Murat Gariyev, who told those assembled, “I would remind those of you who have forgotten that on October 27 and 28 1999, the Ninth People’s Council was held, and back then we decided this issue once and for all – we elected our great leader as president forever…. I would ask you to remove [this] point from the agenda and never return to it.”
Government and other institutions including the People’s Council are entirely controlled by the president, so Gariyev’s move was clearly stage-managed, but the real question of why the debate was tabled and then withdrawn remains unclear.
The motion was passed unanimously, amid applause and chants of support for President Saparmurat Niazov. The council, which ended its session on October 25, decided not to discuss the matter again until 2009.
Some observers say the inclusion of elections on the agenda had suggested that Niazov - also known as Turkmenbashi or “Leader of the Turkmen” - was willing to discuss the possibility of an arranged succession, and wanted to use the assembly as a controlled environment in which to explore the idea.
The president himself has mentioned 2009 as a date for possible polls and has even suggested that parliament might pick a selection of candidates.
But other analysts say that flagging up an election debate was never more than window-dressing anyway, given Turkmenbashi’s continuing grip on absolute power over both parliament and the council. He has launched a wave of high-level purges in his administration over the last six months, apparently aimed at removing anyone representing a potential threat.
Whatever the council’s motives for deciding not even to discuss the election, most observers agree that the messages coming from Turkmenbashi have been mixed in recent months, vacillating between the idea of a lifelong presidency and suggestions that an election could be held.
The People’s Council declared Turkmenbashi president for life in 1999 and again in 2002 although this does not seem to have been ratified in law.
“Including the law on elections in the agenda might be viewed as an attempt to democratise the political system,” said a Central Asia analyst who asked not to be identified. “But people who know the nuances of Turkmenbashi’s policies realise, alas, that this was another political show designed for a very undemanding audience.”
“The worst thing is that Turkmen politicians seriously expect that these parliamentary performances will convince the international community that democracy exists in Turkmenistan, albeit with some concessions for the ‘local mentality’.”
Turkmenbashi has held power since 1985, when he became Communist Party chief. He was elected president of Turkmenistan following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when he set about creating a pervasive personality cult and eliminating all forms of opposition.
He has made public statements in recent months pointing to a willingness to discuss a possible successor.
“The future of the state shouldn’t depend on the will of one man,” he told a cabinet meeting in April. “That will bring no good.”
But this apparent openness has not stopped the Turkmen leader from what looks like a deliberate campaign over the last six months to purge a number of high-level government officials, some of whom have received lengthy jail terms for alleged corruption.
Some observers say the president is fearful that members of his entourage might be inspired to act against him following the revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
Since an important opportunity has been missed to air the possibility that Turkmenbashi might eventually leave office, the question is now whether he has gone cold on the idea, or whether he will bring it up again at another forum.
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