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Turkmenistan on Sunday voted in presidential elections expected to see President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov cruise to a new term at the helm of the isolated state against only the most token opposition.
Seven candidates are standing against the president, who took power after the death in 2006 of eccentric dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, but all are loyal members of the elite who have not sounded a note of criticism in the campaign.
Voting took place in a festive atmosphere with bands playing traditional music and food and even presents handed to voters, said an AFP correspondent who was taken on a tour of polling stations by the election commission.
Berdymukhamedov cast his vote alongside his son, grandson and his father Myalikguly Berdymukhamedov who with conspicuous timing last week was given the honour of having a police unit named after him, official media said.
"An atmosphere of universal inspiration and high emotion is prevailing," the official news agency in the Central Asian ex-Soviet state reported breathlessly.
Berdymukhamedov, a former dentist who became Niyazov's heath minister after rising through the ranks of the dental profession, won the last polls in 2007 with over 89 percent of the vote and a similar result is awaited this time.
But Turkmenistan has issued no invitation for Western observers to assess the elections on a full-scale mission while human rights workers and journalists have also been denied access to the country.
While energy-rich Turkmenistan is promoting the elections as a new step in a programme of democratic reforms, Berdymukhamedov's promise last summer to include genuine opposition in the polls appears not to have been fulfilled.
In a clear nudge for voters, the anchor on state television proclaimed: "Aware of their great responsibility for the future of the motherland, the people will choose the most worthy of the eight candidates."
The figurehead candidates running against Berdymukhamedov include Energy and Industry Minister Yarmukhammet Orazgulyev and Kakageldi Abdyllayev, the chief executive of a subsidiary of state energy firm Turkmengaz.
Other token rivals are his water resources minister and the director of a cotton factory. Another candidate, local agriculture official Redzhep Bazarov, even showered Berdymukhamedov with praise in his election manifesto.
"His abilities and organising capacities are known to every one of us," said pensioner Muhammad Dashymov as he prepared to vote for the president.
Just under three million people have the right to vote across the vast ex-Soviet state that extends from the Caspian Sea to Afghanistan and is one of the most secretive nations in the world along with North Korea.
Polls opened at 0300 GMT and should close 12 hours later. Turnout at 0500 GMT was already 22.8 percent, the central election commission said.
Berdymukhamedov has started cautious reform after the excesses of the notorious personality cult under Niyazov, which extended to installing a golden statue of himself in Ashgabat that rotated to always face the sun.
In a half decade that Turkmenistan calls the "Era of Rebirth", Berdymukhamedov had reopened cinemas, theatres and research institutes and started to encourage foreign majors to help exploit its vast energy reserves.
But critics say the drive has been little more than window dressing and that he still presides over an autocratic one party state that brutally cracks down on dissent and the president has not been shy of creating a personality cult of his own.
"Serious human rights violations such as torture and ill-treatment continue to be committed in detention facilities and severe restrictions remain on freedom of movement and expression, political activism, faith and many other fundamental rights," Amnesty International said in a statement ahead of the polls.
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