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Turkmenistan's Tightly Controlled Election

Candidates for the December 3 elections to district (etrap) and municipal councils underwent a dual process of screening by local government and the Ministry of National Security, MNB.
These are the first elections to this tier of local government for 15 years. After Turkmenistan became independent, President Saparmurat Niazov abolished local elections as he felt they were not in keeping with the nation’s traditions.

The revival of elections is part of a wider constitutional reform in Turkmenistan. On October 25, the head of the country’s Central Electoral Committee, Murad Karryev, told a meeting of the Halk Maslahaty, a national-level assembly assigned more powers than the normal parliament or Majlis, that constitutional reform was proceeding successfully, its aim being to create “popular rule” by allowing pluralist elections to local councils. Karryev said the reform emerged out of the July 23 elections to the lowest tier of council or “gengesh”, in which multiple candidates were allowed to stand for seats.

The December elections followed the same principle.

But local analysts said the elections will achieve little, since councils will be under the thumb of the executive. There is little chance of democracy since the underlying principle of pre-selection still obtains.

A source in the Lebap regional government says that two candidates have been identified for most constituencies, but none of them was chosen by the open meetings held to create the appearance of public engagement in the process.

In reality, all candidates were selected and approved in advance by the authorities. In the main, these are people who are unlikely to represent voters’ interests for fear of fear of losing their jobs.

An election officer in the same region explained that candidates were chosen by district government officials, and the names were checked and approved by the local MNB office in advance. Everything was done to stop independent figures getting through.

Reports from other districts indicated that the same procedure was followed.

The law on local elections prohibits the executive from interfering with the nomination and election process. However, this rule was effectively countermanded by President Niazov, who used the Halk Maslahaty meeting in October to instruct district and town chiefs to assume personal control over nominations so that “outsiders” were not elected.

Niazov cited the example of an individual who was elected head of village council in Lebap region, who had a criminal record and was elected only because so many of the voters belonged to his clan. The president did not say which village was involved or when it happened, but local government and electoral officials say they have no recollection of such a case.

Ore Osmanov, an election officer in Serdarabat district, also in Lebap, related how the chairman of the local election commission gave him the details of the designated candidate, and gave orders for a public meeting to be held to approve the person, who had already been vetted by the MNB.

Osmanov said some of those who attended the meeting were unhappy about being forced into nominating someone, but as they are so used to not having a say, they ended up voting for the candidate unanimously.

The election campaign received little coverage. The only newspaper published in Lebap region, Turkmen Gundogary, confined itself to publishing lists of electoral bodies and members of electoral commissions. Other media have carried only brief reports about candidate nominations.

Thus, the public was as poorly informed about the December election as it was for the July one.

Chary Meredov, a resident of Khojambas district, said he had heard about the elections from a television report, but did not know anything about them. He thinks the views of ordinary people like him count for nothing, and is certain that the local councils will be packed with people prepared to support any decision made by the local government chief.

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