Parliamentary vote starts in gas-rich Turkmenistan
By ALEXANDER VERSHININ,Associated Press Writer AP - 2 hours 30 minutes ago
ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan - Voters in Turkmenistan cast ballots Sunday in a parliamentary election hailed by the government as an exercise in democracy but dismissed by critics as a sham.
It was the first parliamentary election since the death of longtime autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov two years ago, which kindled hopes the Central Asian country would gradually loosen its oppressive political regime and introduce greater freedoms.
The government of his successor, President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, has cast the election as a key step in the development of democracy, but government opponents claim the election is aimed to appease Western countries eager to win access to its vast natural-gas reserves but wary of its record on democracy and human rights.
While all 125 parliament seats up for grabs in Sunday's vote were contested _ unlike previous elections, in which many candidates ran unopposed _ only one political party is legally registered in Turkmenistan, and government opponents have no foothold in politics.
The overwhelming majority of the 288 candidates represent the pro-presidential Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, with the rest drawn mainly from state-approved civic groups. All appear to have run on a platform of staunch support for Berdymukhamedov.
The vote follows political reforms that nearby doubled the number of seats in Parliament and increased its powers, abolishing the rubber-stamp People's Council _ a 2,507-member assembly of presidential appointees, town elders and others that was formerly Turkmenistan's highest legislative body in the country.
Although there was little campaigning and minimal campaign coverage on state-run television, turnout was high in a nation where voting has traditionally been strongly encouraged by the state.
"People have come here to vote with great enthusiasm _ this is a feast for us," said Valentina Rejepova, chairwoman of a polling station in the capital, Ashgabat.
About 77 percent of the 2.5 million eligible voters had cast their ballot by midafternoon, the Central Election Commission said.
Election workers organized Turkmen folk music concerts at several polling stations in an effort to create a festive spirit, but even some local officials suggested the choice of candidates on offer was limited.
"In our district, all the candidates are all practically the same ... they are all teachers," said Orazgeldy Dzhumageldyev, chairman of a polling station in Gyami, a hamlet outside Ashgabat. "I can't really say whether any one of them is worse or better than the others."
Maksat Meredov, a student at Turkmen Agricultural University, said he was optimistic.
"I only expect good things from this election," Meredov said. "We are moving forward."
Niyazov ruled Turkmenistan with an iron fist for almost two decades, isolating the international community and forging a bizarre personality cult.
The United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe sent small contingents to assess the conduct of Sunday's vote.
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