Inside Turkmenistan's Surreal Presidential Election

The only real question: By what margin will tyrant Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov rig the vote?

Turkmenistan president 615 apimages.jpg
AP Images

Next month, Turkmenistan, Central Asia's most closed society, will hold an election for president. There's no secret who will win—current tyrant Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov—but the field of candidates has grown unexpectedly large. Is an exciting election in the works?

Probably not. Of the candidates currently running against Berdimuhamedov, none look likely to garner even statistically relevant support or votes. Berdimuhamedov, a dentist by trade, was swept to power after Turkmenistan's previous president, Sapurmurat Niyazov, died. That death sparked some truly bizarre commentary in the west, including speculation that the country would collapse violently as elites battled for control of limited resources. There was no clear succession plan, even if the head of the Parliament was meant to be the interim president.

That never happened. Instead, Turkmeni elites quietly negotiated a new status quo by putting Berdimuhamedov in charge, then presented that to the world six weeks as an election in fait accompli (he got 89% of the vote). A year later, in 2008, Turkmenistan held an election for its majlis, or Parliament, which heralded a surprise 94% turnout.

Put simply, normal countries simply do not have elections like this. Turkmenistan's elections are so obviously fraudulent that the OSCE declines to even monitor them, since there's nothing to monitor. So why, then, would Turkmenistan create the sham of a crowded election field with so many candidates?

That's the question that is preoccupying Turkmenistan watchers as the February 12 elections approach. A video leaked last month by RFE/RL shows a deranged-looking Berdimuhamedov berating his subordinates like children and insulting Turkey, whose companies are some of the only private businesses operating in the country (his remarks have sparked a minor uproar in the Turkish blogosphere).

From the few hints that have escaped the country's intense censorship regime, there is widespread discontent about the election (those who have spoken out have faced government harassment), even though this is only the second time there's even been a multi-candidate election in the country's 20 years of independence. Berdimuhamedov didn't even register to participate as a candidate until this month, though his decision to officially participate surprised no one.

Inexplicably, Berdimuhamedov seems determined to proceed with the trappings of a normal election no one will acknowledge as such. At this point, the only question is what percentage of the vote he will choose to accept. Other Central Asian dictators have not shied away from impossible margins, such as Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan (95 percent) and Islom Karimov in Uzbekistan ( 88 percent). Wll Berdimuhamedov meet or beat his 89 percent from 2007? Will he go higher, to lend the appearance of inevitability to his oppressive regime? Or will he go lower, to try to create the false sense of political dynamism?

It is the ambiguity over such bizarre questions—literally how much effort will a tyrant go to create the illusion of choice for his renewal of power—that makes studying Central Asia so surreal and fascinating. The fate of Turkemenistan has global implications. Its geography, nestled between the Caspian Sea, Iran, Afghanistan, and Russia and Kazakhstan to the north, give it strategic importance, even if its official neutrality limits what actually happens politically.

Turkmenistan is a major global producer of natural gas and is exporting an increasing amount via an enormous pipeline to China. It was at the center of Unocal's plans to build an oil pipeline across Afghanistan in the 1990s, a distant dream still kept alive by the Asia Development Bank.

It is an important country, in other words, even if the eccentricity of its leaders prompt some to discount what happens there. Next month's election won't really change anything—the status quo will continue there as it always has—but it will give us, for just a few moments, a glimpse into how Berdimuhamedov considers himself a part of Turkmeni life.