Smoke and Mirrors in Turkmenistan: Democratization or Power Transition?

 

[Illustration by Niccolò Cedeno]

 

On March 28, the citizens of Turkmenistan went to the polls to elect, for the first time, the members of the new upper house of Parliament. It is a novelty of these elections: until now, in fact, the Turkmen Parliament was composed of a single Chamber, which is now the lower house. Voters had two hours to vote in the six polling stations set up across the country. The turnout was 98.7%. However, foreign observers were not allowed to monitor the elections. The 112 candidates competed for a total of 48 posts, eight for the capital Ashgabat and eight for each of the five regions. In addition, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov assigned eight more seats on 14 April. The two chambers together will make up the National Council, which will be made up of 181 total members, 56 senators, and 125 deputies.

A step towards democracy?

The decision to move to a bicameral parliamentary system was announced by President Berdymukhamedov last September, and the constitutional changes took effect in the new year. The switch to a bicameral system was announced as the most significant event of the year. The election campaign was held from March 8 to 27. However, there was not any political activity related to the elections. This is not a surprise since there were no opposition candidates on the ballot, and there is no opposition at all in the country.

Nevertheless, President Berdymukhamedov has hailed the vote as a “real manifestation of democracy.”

Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive regimes in the world, in a way similar to North Korea, but less known. The Democratic Party rules the country since 1991. Berdymukhamedov, a dentist by trade, is President since 2006 and things have not changed. No outside observers were allowed to follow the elections by indirect suffrage, although 440 national observers were present instead. The elections were declared valid by the Central Election Commission. Nevertheless, it is very difficult to define this ballot as free and democratic elections, as it is the case for all previous votes held in the country.

The Berdymukhamedov’s dynasty

These elections can be seen as part of a broader power transition scheme. The goals of this election was to prepare the ground for a smooth transition to the President’s son, Serdar Berdymukhamedov, and to delegate some of the powers to influential members of the Turkmen elite in order to quell rising discontent against the background of socio-economic problems in the country. A few months ago, on February 12, President Berdymukhamedov promoted his son Serdar to the newly created post of Deputy Prime Minister. The President has invented a new role just for him, justifying it as a step towards the modernization of the state system and an improvement of its governance. In this capacity, Serdar would be responsible for the digitization and innovation of the oil-rich country.

Serdar Berdymukhamedov, 39 years old, is considered the likely successor of his father. In addition to the post of Deputy Prime Minister, the Turkmen President also appointed his son as the head of the country’s Control Chamber, the state’s highest oversight body, as well as making him a member of the Presidential Security Council. It is not the first time that a new position is established for the son of the President. In 2019, Serdar Berdymukhamedov became the governor of the Ahal region, and in 2020, he was appointed as Minister of Industry and Construction, a new entity recently set up for him. Before that, he was Deputy Foreign Minister, and he currently holds a seat in Parliament.

The President is clearly trying to continue the Berdymukhamedov’s dynasty, with good chances of success.

The need for a power transition in Turkmenistan is seen as a result of three main factors: the growth of public discontent caused by the food crisis, the introduction of consumer charges for gas, electricity and water (previously provided for free), and the overall poor state of the economy; the growing discontent among tribal elites, worried of possible domestic political agitations that could deprive them of their spheres of influence should the President suddenly die; and President Berdymukhamedov’s health.

What could happen?

The new constitution grants former Presidents the office of a People’s Council Deputy. The decision to add this provision to the new text could suggest Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s intention to retire from the office of President and lead the newly formed upper house while transferring the presidential office to his successor.

The most likely scenario would be that the current President does not run for re-election once his term expires in 2024. Alternatively, he might also decide to step down early.

However, the successor of President Berdymukhamedov seems to have already been decided. These elections seem to be an illusion to make people think that some kind of modernization and transition of the political system is ongoing. Anyhow, it is difficult to see these reforms as a change when elections without opposition are constantly in place, and democracy is far away.

 

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