Turkmenistan holds key vote as officials vow 'openness'
AFP - 6 minutes ago
ASHGABAT (AFP) - - Turkmenistan went to the polls Sunday in a parliamentary vote touted as a sign that the energy-rich central Asian nation is shedding its autocratic past, but Western observers say nothing has changed.
Polls opened at 8:00 am (0300 GMT) at 2,118 stations and were to close 10 hours later in the ex-Soviet republic, which was ruled by eccentric dictator Saparmurat Niyazov for two decades until his death in 2006.
Over 2.5 million people are eligible to vote in the election, held under the framework of a new constitution approved in September and intended to increase parliament's powers and raise the number of seats from 65 to 125.
"This campaign stands out for its pluralism, openness and the activeness of the citizens," an election official told AFP, requesting anonymity.
"I voted for a woman. I have three children and I believe that a woman knows the needs of mothers and will defend laws concerning maternity," said a 43-year-old government worker who identified herself as only Durssun.
"I remember the elections from the Soviet days," added pensioner Bayram-aga. "People were very active then, it was like a festival. Now it's much quieter."
Two hours after polls opened 27 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots, a government radio station announced, citing elections officials.
Critics say Niyazov still casts a shadow, despite promises of openness by his successor, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, whose photographs along with the national flag were festooned across polling booths.
Niyazov's gold statue still towers over the desert nation's capital, rotating to face the sun, despite some moves to dismantle his personality cult.
The elections are unlikely to get a clean bill of health from the West, not least as all candidates have stressed support for the president while campaigning.
"The facade has changed but the foundations remain the same," said a Western diplomat, who requested anonymity.
"Power rests entirely with the president. His photo appears every day on the front of the papers. He strictly controls the economy and the whole of the media," the diplomat added.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based rights watchdog, said in an assessment last month that Turkmenistan had made "some progress" but "remains... one of the most repressive and authoritarian states in the world."
Ninety percent of the 288 candidates come from the Democratic Party set up by Niyazov in place of the Communist Party, with the other 10 percent coming from so-called "initiative groups" that have little clout.
All candidates are funded by the state, with a ban on other funding.
Western journalists have been refused permission to cover the vote. Foreign election observers will mainly come from the Commonwealth of Independent States, a post-Soviet group with little credibility.
Three observers are attending from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe but do not plan to issue an evaluation.
With its enormous natural gas reserves, Turkmenistan is central to European efforts to diversify gas supplies away from Russia. Berdymukhamedov has voiced support for giving the West more access to Turkmen gas.
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