ASHGABAT (Reuters) - Turkmenistan voted for a new president on Sunday in its first contested election, but one virtually certain to be won by an aide to the country’s former authoritarian leader who died in December.
A European parliamentarian who monitored proceedings said the poll was not free and fair, but echoed diplomats who said it might herald gradual change in the reclusive, gas-rich Central Asian state.
Six candidates were officially vying to replace President Saparmurat Niyazov, who ruled the former Soviet republic for two decades with an iron fist while building golden statues of himself and stamping his image on every part of daily life.
The six all come from his Democratic Party — the only legal political grouping. All pledged to continue in his steps, but the candidate seen as bound to win was acting leader Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who served for 10 years in Niyazov’s cabinet.
Human rights groups have condemned the poll, prompted by Niyazov’s death from a heart attack, as a sham that would consolidate “a new dictatorship” in the desert nation.
“They may hardly be called elections and they were absolutely not free and fair,” Portuguese member of parliament Joao Soares told Reuters after visiting polling stations under Foreign Ministry accompaniment.
“But ... the fact that they are at least trying to do something that resembles a free election is a step forward.”
Soares was in Ashgabat with four other members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly to improve links with the country and stressed his role was not one of a formal election monitor.
The United States, Europe and China are watching closely, keen to see Turkmenistan’s gas flow along new routes beside the Soviet-era pipeline that allows Russia to benefit from below market prices, and eager to see signs of change.
“To me the most exciting thing is we’re not talking about revolution, we’re talking about evolution,” said one foreign diplomat in Ashgabat, a city of imposing white marble buildings, statues of Niyazov and parks with elaborate fountains.
The voting, which only a handful of independent experts are scrutinizing, appeared to be unusually brisk. By the close of polls at 6:00 p.m. (1300 GMT), 98.6 percent of the 2.6 million voters had cast their ballots, state media said.
Niyazov, who created a North Korean-style personality cult around himself, appeared to live on in death.
Ballot boxes stood in front of busts or portraits of the “Great Leader” and, in the northern city of Dashoguz, hundreds laid flowers at the feet of one of his statues before voting.
“We’ll know preliminary results by this evening,” Central Election Commission head Murad Karriyev told reporters. “Tomorrow the results will be consolidated and we’ll tell the press the day after tomorrow.”
An inauguration has been planned for Wednesday, even though technically there could be a second round.
At a polling station in Ashgabat, a military band accompanied a singer performing a piece praising Turkmenbashi (Leader of the Turkmen), one of Niyazov’s official titles.
“Which one promised to pay a pension? That’s the one I want to vote for,” said an ethnic Russian woman in her 50s, who declined to give her name.
Many people appeared unsure of what to do and dropped unfolded ballot papers into the transparent boxes, invariably marked in favor of Berdymukhamedov, 49.
He has sprung from relative obscurity to become the successor-in-waiting thanks to the backing of powerful figures in the armed forces and the large ranks of the internal security services, diplomats and the exiled opposition say.
Many of Niyazov’s former ministers ended up in prison or exile, where some have formed opposition movements banned from participating in the vote. Human rights groups say the country has a large number of political prisoners.
In his campaign, Berdymukhamedov pledged to reverse some of Niyazov’s more unpopular policies. He wants to extend schooling, improve healthcare and let Turkmens access the Internet.
Niyazov kept the country closed off from the outside world, cut the number of years children went to school, fired thousands of nurses and closed provincial hospitals.
Additional reporting by Marat Gurt