Turkmenistan's one-horse race

Eight candidates are running for president, each with the same message: vote for the incumbent. Shaun Walker reports from a country where democracy is still a dream

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The Independent Online

It is democracy, Turkmen style.

There are eight candidates standing in tomorrow's presidential election. But all seven men who are challenging the incumbent, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, have refused to ask the electorate to vote for them. Instead, they have lauded the president and his achievements; one of many signs that talk of gradual reform in one of the world's most authoritarian countries is mere wishful thinking.

Indeed, just about the only intrigue in tomorrow's election is whether Mr Berdymukhammedov will choose to win with an overwhelming majority, such as 99 per cent of the vote, to suggest invincibility, or with a more modest figure around 70 or 80 per cent, giving the veneer of a democratic contest.

Turkmenistan, a desert nation bordering Iran and Afghanistan, has a population of just five million and some of the world's largest reserves of natural gas. Mr Berdymukhammedov, a former dentist with a short temper, came to power when his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, died in 2006.

When the Soviet Union collapsed and Turkmenistan became independent, Mr Niyazov abandoned his Communist past and rebranded himself as "Turkmenbashi" (leader of all the Turkmen), creating one of the most obscene personality cults in human history. Golden statues of him were erected across the desert state, and his name was scrawled alongside "God Is Great" inside mosques. A series of bizarre laws that glorified him and members of his family were enacted, with the month of January renamed after his mother. He turned Ashgabat, the capital, into a gleaming city of white marble high-rises, but ordinary people saw little of the oil and gas wealth that paid for his vanity projects.

Mr Berdymukhammedov, who as Turkmenbashi's health minister was responsible for enacting a decree to close all hospitals outside the capital, came to power promising to dismantle the personality cult and gradually open up Turkmenistan to the outside world. A few internet cafés opened, and a revolving gold statue of Mr Niyazov was removed from the centre of Ashgabat.

But instead of moving towards democratisation, Mr Berdymukhammedov has substituted the Turkmenbashi cult for his own. His portraits now adorn almost every building in Ashgabat; he has already penned several books on everything from horses to cookery, and his exploits dominate every news bulletin.

This month brought news that a police unit had been named after the president's father, while a statue of his grandfather has been erected at the country's military academy, and a school had also been named after him. Vanity projects include a multibillion-dollar resort on the Caspian Sea coast, despite the fact it is warm enough to swim in for only a couple of months a year, and that the country gives tourist visas only to people who are accompanied by guides at all times. Mr Berdymukhammedov has travelled more than his predecessor, courting foreign interest in his country's huge reserves of natural resources, but he has kept his citizens just as isolated from the rest of the world.

American diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks described Mr Berdymukhammedov as "vain and corrupt" and painted him as a pedant obsessed with cleanliness. "About 30 years ago, when Berdymukhammedov owned an old Russian car, he would leave it at home if it rained and take a taxi instead," one of the cables read. US diplomats also suggested that he had been given a yacht worth £50m by a Russian company in exchange for juicy contracts, and describe him variously as vain, suspicious, guarded, strict, very conservative and a "practised liar".

Not that any ordinary Turkmens would have heard anything about this, of course. Turkmenistan is ranked by Reporters without Borders as the third worst country for press freedom, number 177 out of 179, and most ordinary citizens have no access to outside information and are unable to travel. Last week one of the few human rights activists in the country came home to find a severed sheep's head outside her door.

A clandestine video leaked online recently provided an unprecedented peek into the darker side of Mr Berdymukhammedov's rule. Dressed in a suit and tie, he struts into the room wielding a gold-handled pointer stick, and waves it at the coterie of nervous ministers and officials around him. "Hey, all of you, get behind me!" he snaps. "You have no brains! Everyone laughs at you!" he says, berating officials over the design plans of a new architectural complex. Waving the stick at various sketched plans, he offers some advice: "Move this over here and move that over there." Distracted by the whiff of stale cigarette smoke, he suddenly turns on his minions. "Someone here has been smoking! I'll find out who it is."

Now referred to as Arkadag, or "The Protector", the president is beyond reproach, and none of the seven candidates running against him have uttered a word of criticism. Despite a promise to introduce more political plurality, a number of those who tried to stand on perhaps more genuine platforms were simply refused admittance to the ballot. One Turkmen blogger said the electoral policy was confused. "It gives me the feeling of a little boy who's made up his own game and is ambivalent about letting other people play," wrote the blogger, who posts under a pseudonym. "A game without other players is not a game, but a game with players means giving up control."

From Horse's Mouth: The Dictator's Views

"I don't give a damn about your shops! I need it to be in harmony with your building. Where is the harmony? Move this over here and that over there."

Mr Berdymukhammedov is caught on video berating officials about some architectural plans

"When it comes to Turks, they lie to your face and kick you in the back."

Filmed in secret talking to officials

"The envoy of God and the son of his nation...There are no unmanageable tasks for him..."

How the President is described in his official biography

"Wherever you tread, the soil turns into an orchard of paradise, and new villages, museums, factories and kindergartens rise there."

Praise is lavished on the President at an official gathering