Pro-government candidates in election for rubber-stamp Turkmen parliament

ASHGABAT (Reuters) - Turkmenistan is voting in a parliamentary election on Sunday, with a choice of three parties and some independents, but all the candidates are ultimately loyal to President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, leader of the gas-rich nation.

A woman receives her ballot during a parliamentary election in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan March 25, 2018. REUTERS/Marat Gurt

One of the candidates is the president’s son, Serdar Berdymukhamedov, regarded by observers as a potential successor to the 60-year-old leader, who is referred to by local people as Arkadag, or Protector.

Although the vote takes place against the backdrop of foreign currency shortages brought on by a drop in gas exports, there are no opposition parties in the former Soviet republic of six million.

Polling stations greeted voters with national music and dance shows, and snacks.

“The election is a real holiday for us, which will bring peace, prosperity and stability,” said Maskat Muratdyrdyev, 26, head of a provincial polling station not far from Ashgabat.

Official data shows almost a quarter of registered voters had cast their ballots by 9 a.m. (0400 GMT), within the first two hours of voting.

Not everyone was enthusiastic, though.

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“I have three kids to feed, gasoline prices have gone up and everything has become more expensive,” said taxi driver Mergen, 36, who said he would not vote.

“I think they will deal with the election without me.”

There are 284 candidates contesting 125 seats in the single-chamber legislature, whose main job is to rubber-stamp bills drafted by the cabinet.

Another legislative body in the predominantly Muslim nation is the Halk Maslahaty, or People’s Council, chaired by the president, which has more powers than parliament and consists of deputies elected by local councils.

However, the position of parliament speaker is important, because holders of the office become acting president if the head of state is unable to carry out his work.

Some observers have tipped Serdar Berdymukhamedov, 36, to eventually become speaker and the designated successor to his father, who has run the country since 2007 and is the center of an extravagant personality cult.

A golden statue of the president riding a horse stands in the center of Ashgabat.

In a symbolic move, Serdar Berdymukhamedov, who had worked as a diplomat before becoming an MP in 2016, attended a summit of Central Asian leaders in Kazakhstan this month that his father skipped.

Turkmenistan’s economy depends heavily on exports of natural gas and Russia was its main customer for decades, thanks to Soviet-era pipelines. But Moscow halted purchases of Turkmen gas in 2016, leaving as the main buyer China, which has built its own pipeline from scratch.

The Ashgabat government is building a new pipeline through neighboring Afghanistan to Pakistan and China in an attempt to open up additional export markets.

Reporting by Marat Gurt; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Clarence Fernandez