Turkmenistan: Local Elections Fail to Inspire

Turkmenistan: Local Elections Fail to Inspire

Thursday, 16 July, 2009
Many voters in Turkmenistan are sceptical that elections scheduled for July 26 will result in local councils that are prepared to tackle real issues on the ground. Despite pledges to reform them, these elected institutions seem likely to remain as toothless as before, say NBCentralAsia observers.

The process of registering candidates began on July 5, and the Central Electoral Commission reports that over 12,000 candidates are running for around 6,200 council seats nationwide. The choice is limited to candidates from the Democratic Party, the only legal party, and representatives of various government-run associations.

“Gengeshes” or assemblies for small towns, districts and rural areas are being elected under slightly different rules, so that members will hold office for five rather than the previous three years.

Last October, President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov spoke of a need to reform local government in order to turn it into a more efficient implementer of national policies.

The gengeshes currently have powers to decide local-level spending and taxes, and sort out water and land disputes. Under Berdymuhammedov’s reforms, they are also to be allowed to submit recommendations to the national parliament concerning local affairs specific to their area.

Berdymuhammedov has indicated that he will embark on a process of decentralisation once the election is out of the way. But NBCentralAsia say this will be easier said than done, not least because the current system involves a strict hierarchy, with the president himself at the top, hiring and firing cabinet ministers and provincial governors, and even picking the speaker of parliament.

So far, observers say, there has been little sign of change in the way local government operates. One media-watcher in the Dashoguz region of northeastern Turkmenistan says he cannot remember when local councillors took a decision of any significance.

“Sometimes one gets the impression that there are no members local councillors at all,” says another commentator. “In the provinces, all decisions are taken by a hakim [appointed local government chief] in line with the president’s policy programme.”

Recalling past elections, a women’s activist in the eastern Lebap region said she no longer believed any candidate who promised to install mainst water or repair the roads, as none of this ever gets done.

“We all know from bitter experience that pledges made at this stage of the electoral generally get left unfulfilled,” she said.

A villager from Dashoguz said the reason local councillors were so inactive was that the gengeshes have no independence, but merely follow orders from above.

“We don’t care who gets elected – or whether anyone gets elected at all,” he said.

Despite the president’s assurances about stronger local government and empowering candidates, the current election campaign has followed a familiar pattern. People from various parts of Turkmenistan say all candidates have been thoroughly screened and vetted by the security services, and only then are they allowed to be nominated.

An officer from the Ministry for National Security who has been involved in the screening process said, “This is why all the candidates are as similar to one another as chickens from the same incubator.”

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)

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