Behrouz Ghezel

Turkmenistan Presidential Election: Could We Expect Change?

Date of publication : February 11, 2017 10:31 am
Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow at Bocharov Ruchei residence in Sochi, Russia on November 01, 2016
The presidential election of Turkmenistan on February 12, 2017 is interesting for some reasons. This is the first time three different parties have introduced their candidates for the presidential election in Turkmenistan. This round of election has witnessed so far the presence of the largest number of candidates. After the sudden death of Saparmurat Niyazov (the first head of the independent state and Turkmenistan’s President for life) in 2006, during Berdimuhamedov’s term of office and in elections held in 2007 and 2012, 6 and 8 candidates took part in the elections, respectively. It should be noted that Berdimuhamedov could establish the foundations of his unquestioned power in these years by achieving 89 percent and 97 percent of votes, respectively.
But what are the other features of this round of presidential election in Turkmenistan? On this question, three levels of behavior resources and factors influencing the decision-making structure of this state should be considered. Of course, each of these levels finds its meaning in relation to other levels, and they are separated here more for the purpose of analysis. In this context, one of these levels will focus on the international factors. It seems that Turkmenistan, especially in recent years, has been moving from a state of “being” to the state of being “seen” in the arena of international politics, and has given more importance to the diversification of her foreign relations, and has sought a status for herself in the international environment and institutions. At the same time, it seems that regional and international powers have paid more attention to this state than before, for example, the participation of Turkmenistan in the US new mechanism 5+1 (five Central Asian states + the US), the high number of foreign officials’ visits to Ashgabat, and even the establishment of new embassies in this state by some regional players.
But the importance of these issues in this discussion is that recently and coinciding with these developments, Turkmenistan’s domestic policies, and in particular, her behavior in the field of human rights has been severely criticized by Western states including the EU and the US. The Turkmen human rights performance might be considered the biggest challenge facing this state from the West to the extent that at the last meeting of foreign ministers for 5+1 mechanism on the sidelines of the ministerial meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe held on December 8, 2016 in Hamburg, Germany, that it was supposed to include some criticism against the human rights policy of Turkmenistan (and Kazakhstan) in its agenda, Raşit Meredow, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan, officially announced that he was not going to participate in the meeting.
Therefore, it appears that establishing new parties, and welcoming to hold multi-party election, on the one hand, and the presence of numerous candidates, on the other hand, as the most basic “manifestation” of attachment to democracy, and a “show” to ease the international pressure have attracted the attention of the Turkmen decision-making structure.
At the national and regional levels, Turkmenistan is looking for promoting her position and status. This behavior based on winning respect has been emphasized on in more recent speeches of Berdimuhamedov, and even has affected the type of the state’s relations with some of her neighbors. For example, we can see the generous decisions and behavior of Turkmenistan’s President at the opening ceremony of the new Turkmenistan-Afghanistan railway, and his symbolic performance following the sudden death of Islam Karimov - naming streets and places in Turkmenistan after the former President of Uzbekistan.
In addition, in September 2016, new changes in Turkmenistan’s Constitution were made to extend the presidential term from 5 years to 7 years, and also to abolish the age limit of 70 years for a Turkmen presidential candidate, and some other changes were also adopted by the highest legislative body of Turkmenistan - the Halk Maslahaty (People’s Council or Council of Elders). So, the February 12 election will be the first presidential one after new changes were made in the Constitution. No need to mention that these changes create an opportunity for the continued power of the President, and at the same time, for the reduced criticism on the lifelong rule of Berdimuhamedov that has actually been materialized.
But on the individual level and personality characteristics, the fact that “President Berdimuhamedov” is called the “Arkadag/ protector, supporter” in the domestic literature of Turkmenistan, and his ideas and interests to present a different figure than that of his predecessor, Niyazov, are very important. The period of Berdimuhamedov, despite its many similarities with that of Niyazov, is different in the implementation of policies and the quality of applying authority - differences that some analysts have also called them a transition from “Sultanism” to “neopatrimonialism”.
Berdimuhamedov is facing more powerful waves of globalization and the inevitable dissemination of information during his terms of office. The Turkmen citizens travel more to the outside world, and demands for having a democratic life standards and benefiting from the general welfare have also penetrated into the socio-political climate of Turkmenistan. Niyazov, experiencing the terms of office since 1985 as the Secretary of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan, having the position of the President of Turkmenistan in the period of independence, witnessing national and regional requirements during the transition period as well as having a unique personality cult, followed the issue of political legitimacy differently. Berdimuhamedov, who came into power when Niyazov suddenly passed away in 2006, and despite the fact that some article in the Constitution were breached, was a lesser known and younger figure who had to strengthen the foundations of his authority - winning a landslide in the election was considered one of the possible ways to achieve this goal.
In recent years, Berdimuhamedov has taken various measures to promote his social position, and strengthen his political legitimacy. Inviting parties in exile and the opposition candidates outside of Turkmenistan to participate in the previous rounds of election, doing a widespread media activity to present a youth-oriented face of himself, strengthening the armed forces of the state, and holding multiple military exercises are considered a part of these measures. The Turkmen media has repeatedly shown Berdimuhamedov engaged in interesting activities such as horseback riding, rally driving, being the pilot of airplanes and combat helicopters, driving tank and armored personnel carrier, singing and composing, being a traditional healer and a head of state who himself drives the luxury cars of the government. In a measure related to this discussion, Berdimuhamedov have also asked to give a part of his legal time - given to candidates for the state television’s official propaganda - to his “rivals” to show people that he is a “fair” and “benevolent” statesman.
But with a little distance from the inflexible public space of Turkmenistan, and based on a poll carried out in 2014 (in the early days of establishing the third party of “Iqrar”) in one of the public social networks (1), 60% of the Turkmen domestic elites have found the plurality of parties effective for improving the socio-political climate of this state, while 23% of participants in the poll opposed the increased number of political parties, and other participants also thought it would be ineffective to get new parties involved in the political arena of Turkmenistan. But what is more interesting than this statistical outcome are the notes and comments many users left under this poll - comments that show in many ways a critical and questioning approach of some users.
But another poll on the upcoming presidential election in Turkmenistan has shown up to now interesting results as follows:

Bekmurad Ataliyev: 58%
Süleýmannepes Oraznepesowiç Nurnepesow: 18%
Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov: 16%
Ramazan Mustapakulyýewiç Durdyýew: 4%
Serdar Begmuhammedowiç Jelilow: 1%
Durdygylyç Orazow: 1%
Jumanazar Annaýew: less than 1%
Meretdurdy Isgenderowiç Gurbanow: less than 1%
Maksat Ananepesov: less than 1%
However, a few points should be noted on this poll. The above poll has been conducted on a website (2) which the Turkmen people are forbidden to use it, and most of its users are the critics of the government or the Turkmen people living outside of Turkmenistan. But according to the poll question “Which candidate will you vote for in the upcoming Turkmen presidential election?” (3), the results show, more than anything, which candidate has given people the most hope for a change. In this round of election, it seems that Bekmurad Ataliyev (Chairman of Rysgal Bank and the candidate of the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs of Turkmenistan) has attracted in this position the attention of critics and pro-reform groups. It is also worth mentioning that the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs entered the political life of this state in 2012 as the second official party of Turkmenistan (after the ruling Democratic Party of Turkmenistan). Some believe that this party was created aiming at curbing demands gradually emerging in the socio-political climate of this state.
However, various other political, social and cultural factors can still be considered on the issues of why and how political processes and phenomena including election and their results in Turkmenistan are carried out like this. There is no doubt that the “subject political culture” of tribal social institutions, the nature of “rentier” state, the structure of political power in the form of “neopatrimonial” regime, and the inevitable consequences of the process of “state-building” along with other social features affect political processes and issues in Turkmenistan.
The presidential election of this state will be held on February 12, 2017, and most probably everyone has no doubt over the re-election of Berdimuhamedov. In other words, although a few days are still left to the election day, “Berdimuhamedov is considered the winner of the 2017 presidential election of Turkmenistan”.

Behrouz Ghezel, a PhD candidate in Central Asia and Caucasus Studies at University of Tehran, is the fellow at IRAS.

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