Going GONGO in Turkmenistan’s presidential “election”
Editor’s note: Turkmenistan’s upcoming presidential poll is truly a strange creature. neweurasia’s Annasoltan reviews how it has evolved in the last few months, including the role of government-organized NGOs (GONGOs). “For a sham election,” she writes, “trying to keep track of [it] has proven really annoying.”
For a sham election, trying to keep track of Turkmenistan’s upcoming presidential poll has proven really annoying. For one, in early January of this year, our country’s “Arkadag” (Protector), Berdimuhamedov, declared his intention to establish a multi-party system. One wonders what exactly he has in mind.
It’s my understanding that in February 2011, several Turkmen citizens submitted party registration documents to the Ministry of Justice. Several of those who applied simply met no response, some of them were subsequently called into the Prosecutor General’s Office, where it was made clear to them that they needed to back off, and according to Deutsche Welle journalist Durdy Nazarov, at least one apparently was given a prison term for commercial fraud!
Also that month, Berdimuhamedov gave a forceful speech in which he boasted that he does not fear the members of the Turkmen opposition in exile, many of whom are former government officials. Incidentally, neweurasia‘s readers may recall how, shortly after the Abadan explosion and the role played by opposition-in-exile media on getting the word out, Berdimuhamedov invited dissenters back into the country so they could run in the election. The few who tried had the door promptly shut in their face — so much for no fear.
Then, in May 2011, Berdimuhamedov floated the idea of a “Peasant Party”, the purpose of which would be to “explain the essence of the agrarian state policy [and] provide ideological support to the ongoing agriculture reform”, in other words, Berdimuhamedov‘s agricultural reform (whatever that actually is). It sounds a bit like some of the pseudo-parties of “liberals” in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which are drawn mostly from pre-approved members of business or state bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, in the attempt to conjure up candidates for this election, Berdimuhamedov has turned not to his ministers and deputies, who would be seen as real rivals, but to second-rank officials from the country’s five provinces. What’s proven to be a headache is that the number of these candidates has inflated and deflated; it’s now at seven, not including the president himself. And by the way, they are all loyalists, declaring their support for Berdimuhamedov’s policies. The official online news site has praised their candidacy as the “way leading to democracy”.
Originally, three candidates from Lebap and Dashoguz provinces were announced. Later on, four more candidates were added from Ahal, Mary and Balkan provinces, thus having candidates form each province. Then, an additional seven candidates were announced, bringing the total to fifteen. Later, it was announced that of the fifteen candidates seven had not been nominated as candidates by the Central Election Commission because five of them had not managed to process their application in time and another two had withdrawn their bid to run in the election. Berdimuhammedov’s nomination came from his Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, the women’s and youth associations and the labor unions whereas the other candidates were selected by “initiative groups”. These groups, by the way, seem like mirages: countrymen with whom I’ve talked say they never knew such groups existed until this election, and they appear to be what’s derisively called “government-organized non-governmental organizations” (GONGOs), which probably means they were created for the sole purpose of manufacturing candidates.
Oddly, these “candidates” have all been announced less than two months before the election. That does not leave them enough time for an election campaign. But then again, the only one really campaigning is Berdimuhamedov. There are no rallies, no speeches, no posters, no advertisements, none of the trappings of a regular democratic election. About the only “pamphleting” going on is the distribution of official voting ballots in the Turkmen language (see: above photograph).
I should also note that all of the “candidates” are male. RFE/RL reports that a female schoolteacher from Ashgabat had her application rejected. It’s hard to say whether it was because she’s a woman or because her candidacy was supported by the Civil Society Movement, an actual NGO (actual in the sense of not being government-organized and government-sanctioned).
And yet, some of my countrymen fall subject to the illusion, or at least pay lip-service to it. I asked one young man from Ashgabat named Ilmyrat what he thought about the election, and he replied:
“When I see all the unfamiliar names of the other candidates, I would like to give my vote to our president because there is a lot of work to do, and in order to do them, he has to be elected one more time. Besides, our country is not ripe yet for open and democratic elections.”