Ashgabat (Turkmenistan): Citizens of Turkmenistan went to the polls today for a presidential vote expected to further tighten strongman Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s hold over the gas-rich Central Asian country.
The turnout in the country of over 5 million people exceeded 74 percent in the first six hours of voting, the Central Election Commission said.
Berdymukhamedov, 59, faces eight other candidates including low-level regional officials, the director of a government-owned oil refinery and a representative of a state agribusiness complex.
But these candidates are viewed as token opponents for the former dentist and health minister who took power following the death of predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006.
Casting his vote at a school in the capital Ashgabat on Sunday morning, the president said the vote would decide “the fate of the people for the coming seven years”.
The autocrat was accompanied by family members including his son, who was elected as an MP last year.
“If I am elected then our policies aimed at improving the welfare of the people will continue, Berdymukhamedov said.
Last year Berdymukhamedov signed off on constitutional changes that paved the way for his lifelong rule by stripping away upper age limits for presidential candidates.
Another change lengthened presidential terms from five to seven years.
Voters in Ashgabat overwhelmingly said they were backing Berdymukhamedov.
“I voted for the first time, and chose our president,” said Zokhra, an 18-year old student decked out in bright red national dress who was voting at her university.
“We are deciding our future,” said Zokhra, who was presented with one of Berdymukhamedov’s books and a bunch of flowers by officials after she cast her vote.
One-sided votes are typical in Central Asia, a Muslim-majority ex-Soviet region politically close to Russia and China, where reigning presidents are usually expected to die in power.
“These regimes have a logic of their own and they very much follow that logic,” said Annette Bohr, an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia programme at the Chatham House think tank.
Turkmenistan’s regime is “even more repressive and personalist” than those found in neighbouring Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Bohr said.
“Berdymukhamedov is predictable in that he will do what he has to do in order to perpetuate that regime.