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

Turkmenistan's Small Band of Defiant Voters

The state threw its weight behind Berdymukhamedov, but some at least defied officials and voted for his rivals.
As Turkmen citizens await the results of a presidential election thought to have been a foregone conclusion, it’s emerged that not everyone swallowed the official propaganda.

The system erected by the late Saparmurat Niazov swung into gear to ensure a smooth succession on the February 11 polling day, with ubiquitous security personnel and “helpful” election staff suggesting to voters that acting president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov had an appealing platform.

But while Turkmenistan’s machinery of state threw its enormous weight behind Berdymukhamedov’s campaign, at least some of the country’s residents rejected the election propaganda and decided to vote for one of Berdymukhamedov’s five opponents.

On the eve of the elections, one man was shepherded into a meeting with fellow state workers.

“The director gave a clear hint we should give our votes for Berdymukhamedov and that then life will improve [with him],” said the worker. “It was clear even during the pre-election campaign who was going to win.”

But the worker did not want his first vote in a multi-candidate presidential election to go to waste. So although voters were pressured, some would say coerced, to support the de facto official candidate, the worker chose someone else.

“I gave my vote for [Ishanguly] Nuriev because I like him more, although he does not have a real power,” he said.

True political alternatives have long been hard to find in Turkmenistan. Niazov’s beginnings were far from democratic - he became head of Soviet Turkmenistan’s Communist Party in 1985, and proceeded to run unopposed after independence. By the time he died in December, he had crushed a nascent political opposition, created a subservient state media and clamped-down on non-governmental groups. As he grew in power, he built an isolationist ideology that revolved around him, dubbing himself Turkmenbashi, Leader of the Turkmen.

With turnout at almost 99 per cent, according to the country’s electoral commission, the authorities clearly put a lot of effort into making sure that as many voters as possible cast their ballot.

The sun shone brightly on election day. The streets of the capital Ashgabat were especially clean and bedecked with election billboards. In some places, police and security men in black suits were seen every 200 to 300 metres. Loud music and dancing girls in festive outfits greeted voters at the polling stations.

Voters were more than encouraged to participate.

“We cooked plov (pillau) for voters at our polling station, as was done at most,” said a teacher at one of Ashgabat’s schools. “Money was collected from all school staff, about 12 US dollars per head … We are so used to it, we don’t even mind. If we don’t give, it will be deducted from our salaries so we might as well do it voluntarily.”

Another Ashgabat resident says she went to the polling station in the centre of the city next to the security ministry.

“There were a lot of people there, I had to wait in a queue. There were no observers and I cast my ballot in a transparent box,” she said.

Some voters, she says, noticed another kind of observer, “There were a lot of men in black suits; it was the same at Niazov’s funeral. They were security officers.”

If anyone seemed to be in doubt as to who to vote for, election commission staff pointed out that the acting president Berdymukhamedov had a good platform.

Election organisers did everything to ensure a high turnout, IWPR reporters found. Towards the end of the day, they visited people at home. An Ashgabat resident who never votes says she knew that they would stop by.

“They came this time as well. Of course I put the ballot paper in the box, what else could I do?” she said. But their insistence that she vote did not convince her of the process’ legitimacy.

Among the probable minority of voters who threw their weight behind someone other than Berdymukhamedov were those who said they did so because of regional ties.

“Many here have given their votes for [presidential candidate] Ashirniaz Pomanov,” said a woman from Turkmenbashi in the western Balkan region. “He is our mayor, a very good guy. We trust him and would be happy if he becomes president.”

Likewise, a lawyer originally from Karabekaul, says he would vote for candidate Muhammetnazar Gurbanov, the head of the Karabekaul region.

“My family discussed it and we decided to support [Gurbanov]. I know many who did the same,” he said.

Nonetheless, whether they voted for Berdymukhamedov or not, a number of those IWPR spoke to said they didn’t expect much from the election.

“None of the candidates are suitable to be our president. Their campaigns were similar, with only Berdymyhammedov being a slight exception,” said a scientist from Ashgabat.

“None of them talked about real problems the country faces, not one wants to make the country more open, give it political freedoms and freedom of expression, and welcome back those who left for political reasons.

“Turkmenistan needs democratic changes, real economic reforms, [but] no-one talked about it.”

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