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Wednesday, 08 January 2014

Turkmenistan Holds Its First Multiparty Parliamentary Elections

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By Tavus Rejepova (the 08/01/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On December 15, almost 2.8 million voters cast their ballots to elect new members into Turkmenistan’s first ever multi-party unicameral Parliament, Mejlis. According to the Central Election Commission (CEC), the total voter turnout was 91.3 percent out of all registered eligible voters. The CEC is expected to announce the results of the first multiparty elections in the country next week, while skeptics claim the elections bring no real change in the near future.

The CEC registered over 3 million voters in 125 single mandate constituencies and official sources reported that 91.3 percent of all eligible voters cast their ballot. Voting took place at 2,413 polling stations across Turkmenistan as well as 33 polling stations at Turkmenistan’s diplomatic missions and consular offices abroad. 283 candidates were contending for 125 seats in the Mejlis, including 99 from the Democratic Party, 21 from the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (PIE), 89 from the Organization of Trade Unions, 37 from the Women’s Union, 22 from the Youth Union and 15 from Citizen Groups.

Though the so-called unions represent the highest number of candidates in total, any union member can simultaneously be affiliated with the ruling Democratic Party of Turkmenistan in reality. No candidates were running on an independent line or agenda. Pictures and biographies of the candidates were published in both Turkmen and Russian in the country's main newspapers and on billboards at polling stations. President Berdimuhamedov, accompanied by his father and mother, voted at polling station #48 of electoral constituency 7. Early voting opened on December 5 in some of the polling stations for voters who are unable to vote on Election Day. 

According to the laws of Turkmenistan, any citizen who is over the age of 25 and has been residing in the country for the past 10 years can qualify as a candidate for a seat in the parliament. Nominations are made by registered political parties, groups of citizens and public associations and the elected members of parliament serve for a term of five years. The last parliamentary elections were held in December 2008. As opposed to previous elections, this year’s candidates running for parliamentary elections included some ethnic Russians. 

Turkmenistan got its second political party in 2012, when it adopted the Law on Political Parties and the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs was formed, which is an ally rather than a contender to the dominant Democratic party. In August of this year, President Berdimuhamedov stepped down as a member and leader of the Democratic Party to promote a multiparty political system in the country and not to favor any given party. The Election Code was passed in May 2013, unifying the earlier existing separate laws on elections. During several weeks in the run up to the elections, the state TV channels aired footage of nominees campaigning in public areas such as secondary schools of their respective election constituencies. 

The Executive Committee Chairman and CIS Executive Secretary Sergei Lebedev who led the group of CIS observers said at a December 16 press conference in Ashgabat that the “elections on December 15, 2013 were held in accordance with the Constitution and the Electoral Code of Turkmenistan. The elections met the generally accepted democratic norms, were open, transparent and ensured the free expression of citizens.”

However, despite the latest legislative reforms and the occurrence of an election featuring several parties for the first time in Turkmenistan's history, the elections sustained heavy criticism from international NGOs. John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia program director said in a statement on the organization's website that “Holding these elections will not address the atmosphere of total repression, denial of the basic human rights, and the all-permeating fear that has gripped society in Turkmenistan for years, and all pretense of progress on human rights is simply deceitful.” RFE/RL reported instances of voters casting several ballots and reported that the voter turnout was significantly lower than what has been officially reported.

Upon an invitation from Turkmenistan, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) sent a small 15 person assessment team to examine but not to conduct a comprehensive observation, of the extent to which the elections meet international standards. The OSCE report is due in about two months. The Berlin based Transparency International released the “Corruption Perceptions Index 2013” a week before the December 15 elections, ranking Turkmenistan 168, an improvement by two steps compared to its 170 spot in the 2012 list.

Domestically, the elections were touted as a landmark event in Turkmenistan’s transition to democracy. The newly elected parliamentarians will undoubtedly be loyal to the current administration’s policies and the election is unlikely to bring any changes to the lives of ordinary people in Turkmenistan. 

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