World Bulletin / News Desk
Some nine candidates will be on the ballot for a presidential poll in reclusive Turkmenistan on Sunday, but only one -- incumbent autocrat Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov -- stands a chance of winning.
Among the 59-year-old strongman's competitors are subordinate regional officials, the director of a government-owned oil refinery and a representative of the Central Asian country's state agribusiness complex.
These other candidates will probably share "the three to six percent of the vote" not amassed by Berdymukhamedov, predicts Annette Bohr, an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia programme at the Chatham House think tank.
Recent footage from state television saw Berdymukhamedov in relaxed form during a low key pre-election campaign that officially ends on Saturday.
One of his public appearances showed him decked in casual attire as he impressed factory workers by strumming along on the guitar to a song state media claims he wrote himself.
The grand pledge at the centre of his campaign is to "ensure the prosperity of independent, neutral Turkmenistan in the third millennium."
State media also says Berdymukhamedov plans to release a collection of songs to mark International Women's Day on March 8, a popular holiday in the ex-Soviet state.
One-sided votes are typical to Central Asia, a resource-rich majority-Muslim region close to Russia and China where reigning presidents are mostly expected to die in power.
Voters in the capital Ashgabat admitted to knowing little about the other candidates compared to Berdymukhamedov, the heartbeat of state propaganda for the last decade.
"Maybe they are good people, but will they be able to rule our country as effectively? It isn't clear," said Nurnepes Khodjamuradov, a 64-year-old pensioner.
"I will cast my vote for the current president," he told AFP.
Golden statues, economic strain
The ballot in the gas-rich country follows a September constitutional fix extending presidential terms from five to seven years and abandoning upper age limits for candidates.
Analysts saw the changes as paving the way for the lifelong rule of an autocrat who took power in 2006 following the death of his eccentric predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov, known as Turkmenbashi, the "Father of the Turkmen".
Like Niyazov, who died of a reported heart attack aged 66, Berdymukhamedov has presided over a flowering personality cult that has drawn comparisons with the likes of North Korea.
Both men are honoured by golden statues in Ashgabat, where wealth derived from hydrocarbons is flaunted in lavish, grandiose white marble architecture, even as other parts of the country suffer poverty.
In a February pre-election brief, New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch said Berdymukhamedov has taken "a few modest steps to reverse some of Niyazov's damaging policies" while retaining the state's repressive character.
Although citizens now have access to the internet, unlike under Niyazov, it is tightly controlled, and the government "has waged a campaign" to cut citizens off from foreign satellite television, according to HRW.
Ahead of the vote, "voters cannot express their views about all candidates in an open manner and without fear," the group noted.
Turkmenistan sits on the world's fourth largest natural gas reserves, but has failed to diversify its economy and remains reliant on exports to China.
In 2015 the government devalued the manat currency by 19 percent after global hydrocarbon prices crashed but continued to spend heavily on frivolous projects.
Last year the government opened a bird-shaped airport worth $2 billion and has reportedly overturned residential neighbourhoods in order to host the 5th Asian Indoor Games in Ashgabat later this year.
Bohr of Chatham House cautions against drawing too many conclusions about a country that remains "opaque to outsiders".
Nevertheless, she argues, the Turkmen system functions largely "to finance a small circle of elites and the security services."
"It doesn't really matter whether the person at the top of that system is Berdymukhamedov, or somebody else," Bohr told AFP by telephone.
Güncelleme Tarihi: 10 Şubat 2017, 08:32