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02 March 2024

Turkmen president set for ceremonial poll victory


The isolated but energy-rich Central Asian state of Turkmenistan is set Sunday to hand Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov a new term in power against token opposition in presidential polls.

Berdymukhamedov, an ex-dentist turned functionary who rose to the top after the death of the eccentric Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006, made a show of throwing the vote open to the opposition while still keeping a tight rein on politics.

A total of seven candidates are standing against him but all are members of the obsequiously loyal Turkmen elite, including ministers appointed by the president and figures who have eulogised him in public.

Polling stations across the mostly desert nation open at 8:00 am (0300 GMT) and close 12 hours later.

But while exit polls are banned in the authoritarian nation, there is little doubt that Berdymukhamedov is set to repeat his landslide victory of 2007, when he won more than 89 percent of the vote.

"This trust I take as an acknowledgement of the positive results of the work I have started with my native people and the important work for fundamental reform of our state," he said.

Berdymukhamedov has started cautious reform after the excesses of the notorious personality cult under Niyazov, reopening cinemas, theatres and research institutes that were shut down during his predecessor's rule.

Western energy majors are competing with China to exploit Turkmenistan's vast gas reserves while European firms are taking advantage of a construction bonanza in a multi-billion-dollar building programme in the capital Ashgabat.

In July 2011, Berdymukhamedov unexpectedly announced that the exiled opposition which denounces him as a dictator could take part in the elections. But no one showed interest, fearing immediate arrest on arrival.

The offer came just days after a series of mysterious blasts outside Ashgabat killed 15 people, according to official figures. The opposition claimed that hundreds died in what in fact was a munitions depot fire.

Berdymukhamedov is now running against figurehead candidates such as Energy and Industry Minister Yarmukhammet Orazgulyev and Kakageldi Abdyllayev, the chief executive of a subsidiary of state energy firm Turkmengaz.

In an unusual step for any candidate in an election, one hopeful showered his supposed opponent Berdymukhamedov with praise in his campaign manifesto.

"In the Era of Rebirth, under the wise and respected leadership of the president grandiose changes have taken place in the interests of every single person," said Redzhep Bazarov, a local agriculture official.