The National Times - Turkmenistan votes for father-son transition

Turkmenistan votes for father-son transition

Turkmenistan votes for father-son transition
Turkmenistan votes for father-son transition

Voting was underway in Turkmenistan Saturday for a tightly-controlled leadership election that is all but certain to yield ex-Soviet Central Asia's first father-son succession.

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Nine candidates are in the fray in the republic of six million people, but President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who tolerates no opposition and has dominated public life since the country's founding president died in 2006, is not among them.

Berdymukhamedov senior signalled his decision to step aside last month and allow "young leaders" to govern.

The announcement has seen the role of victor-in-waiting fall to his son, Serdar Berdymukhamedov, 40, who has rapidly risen to the top of government.

A state television announcer confirming the beginning of voting at 7:00 am (0200 GMT) on Saturday said the elections showed "the irreversibility of the process of democratisation of modern Turkmen society".

Polling stations that will close at 7:00 pm (14:00 GMT) were busy on a cloudy day in the capital Ashgabat, with young Turkmen wearing either suits with black ties or embroidered ankle-length red dresses chatting and giggling in the queues.

Gulya Agayeva, 20, told AFP she had been encouraged to vote by her teachers.

"They said it is our civic duty, that our future depends on our choice," Agayeva said, confirming that she had cast her vote for Berdymukhamedov junior.

Officials contacted by AFP were unable to confirm when preliminary results would be announced.

An inauguration ceremony has been scheduled for March 19, state media said on Friday.

- 'Most experienced' candidate -

Berdymukhamedov senior, 64, benefits from a glitzy leadership cult that includes a golden statue of him on horseback and elicits comparisons to North Korea -- a country that has already witnessed two hereditary successions.

Turkmen state television pays fawning tribute to his hobbies -- horse riding, songwriting and rally car driving to name a few -- and the so-called "protector" is a phenomenon on foreign social media, all of which are blocked.

The leader, who claims Turkmenistan has not suffered a single case of coronavirus, said last month that he wishes to remain in politics in his parallel role as chairman of the parliament's upper chamber.

Much less is known about Serdar Berdymukhamedov, whose government promotions received little public attention until he entered parliament in 2016.

Since then he has been a deputy foreign minister, the head of a province and industry and construction minister.

Last year he won a triple promotion, taking up roles as deputy cabinet chair, auditor general and member of the security council.

Civil servant Selbi Nepesova, 39, told AFP that Serdar Berdymukhamedov's official biography proves he is "the most experienced" of the candidates, despite being younger than his rivals, most of whom are low-ranking government employees.

- Quiet on Ukraine -

"He will have his father close by," the Ashgabat resident said, explaining her decision to vote for him.

Turkmenistan's economy is almost wholly dependent on natural gas sales, making it vulnerable to external shocks that have crippled the purchasing power of citizens, who have no access to hard currency.

China has come to dominate this trade, with one-time top customer Russia's demand for the fuel now under doubt amid crippling sanctions connected to Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

Turkmen state media has almost completely ignored the bloody war taking place in Europe.

But on Friday it referenced "complicated circumstances" in Ukraine in a report on the evacuation of Turkmen students forced to flee the country.

Predictably, the mouthpiece gave the outgoing president credit for ensuring the evacuation.

The returning students "expressed their deep sincere gratitude to the leader of the nation for his truly fatherly care", the state information service TDH claimed.

Turkmenistan's upcoming father-son switch will be the first of its kind in Central Asia, despite erstwhile predictions of family rule in Turkmenistan's larger neighbours Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Across the Caspian Sea in the Caucasus region, Azerbaijan became the first ex-Soviet country to establish a dynasty when its current president Ilham Aliyev took the helm upon father Heydar Aliyev's death in 2003.

Tajikistan, the bloc's poorest successor state, is expected to follow a similar path, with upper house head Rustam Emomali, 34, in pole position to succeed veteran leader Emomali Rakhmon, 69, should Rakhmon retire or prove unable to fulfil his duties.