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Turkmens vote in election with little choice

ASHGABAT (Reuters) - Turkmenistan votes on Sunday in a snap parliamentary election touted by the government as a step toward democracy but condemned by critics as a sham.

From camel-herding nomads on its sandy border with Iran to the vast gas fields in the east, Turkmenistan’s 2.5 million eligible voters will cast their ballots between 8 a.m. (0300 GMT) and 6 p.m. (1300 GMT).

The former Soviet Central Asian country on the Caspian Sea has been emerging from isolation since absolute leader Saparmurat Niyazov died in 2006 after an eccentric, 21-year reign.

New President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov vowed to press ahead with reform and attract foreign investors.

But voters have put little faith in the election as all the candidates represent either the ruling Democratic party, the only party registered in Turkmenistan, or a handful of state-approved independents.

The run-up to the vote was marked by voter apathy and distrust of the government -- a sentiment which, like in Soviet times, people agree to share only in private in a country where criticism of the government remains taboo.

“It does not matter who gets elected. The president has the final say,” said Osman-aga, 59, who herds camels in a remote desert area.

The election is a key element of the new president’s reform plan, which aims to create a bigger and more powerful parliament that would carry greater weight in national decision-making.

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But just like under Niyazov, almost all of the 288 candidates vying for 125 seats represent the ruling party.

“It’s just a sham,” said Farid Tukhbatulin, a Turkmen rights campaigner who spoke to the Reuters Almaty office from Vienna.

The Turkmen opposition mostly resides in exile and has shown little interest in the election. None of the opposition leaders could be reached for comment or posted any statements.

“The conditions are not in place to hold a free and fair election that would be a meaningful reflection of the will of the people,” Human Rights Watch said in a report last month.

Europe will be watching the vote closely as it tries to gauge how much business it can do with the gas-rich nation it sees as key to its energy diversification.

But the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has not sent a full monitoring mission, saying a genuine contest was impossible. The presence of foreign media also is limited as many journalists were unable to get permission to report there.

Additional reporting by Olzhas Auyezov in Almaty; editing by Michael Roddy