Turkmenistan removes legal barrier to leader's indefinite rule

ASHGABAT (Reuters) - Turkmenistan amended its constitution on Wednesday in a way that will allow President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov to stay in power indefinitely, following in the footsteps of his predecessor, who ruled the gas-rich Central Asian nation until his death.

Turkmenistan's President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov speaks at a news briefing in Tbilisi, Georgia, July 2, 2015. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

Amendments approved by the council of elders and the parliament - and immediately signed by Berdymukhamedov - remove the 70-year age limit for presidential candidates and extend the presidential term to seven years from five.

The age limit was the only legal barrier that would have eventually prevented the 59-year-old authoritarian ruler from running and winning one vote after another. Berdymukhamedov’s current, second term ends in 2017.

He has run the isolated desert nation of five million since his predecessor, President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov, died in 2006. Berdymukhamedov has focused on diversifying the export routes for natural gas, Turkmenistan’s main source of income.

He has also rebuilt his predecessor’s elaborate personality cult around himself. While Niyazov had been titled Turkmenbashi, the leader of all Turkmens, Berdymukhamedov is commonly referred to as Arkadag, the protector.

“Let me congratulate you on (passing) a constitution which matches our era of might and happiness,” he told Wednesday’s gathering, referring to the official name of his tenure which followed Niyazov’s “Golden Age”.

Berdymukhamedov’s move to consolidate power followed a plunge in the price of gas that appears to have put pressure on Turkmenistan’s reserves and government finances.

Ashgabat devalued its currency, the manat, by 19 percent in early 2015 and, according to International Monetary Fund estimates, has been running budget deficits in 2015-2016 after years of posting hefty surpluses.

Some speakers at the council of elders on Wednesday urged Berdymukhamedov to dismantle Turkmenistan’s generous welfare system, which includes free rations of tap water, electric power and cooking gas, in order to preserve wealth for future generations.

Berdymukhamedov ordered his government to look into the matter.

Reporting by Marat Gurt; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Larry King