The play’s the thing in Turkmenistan
“The play ‘s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” — Hamlet, Act II, Scene II.
Even fake elections can give strongman dictators a headache when ordinary people actually expect them to mean something. It’s widely expected that Turkmenistan’s elections would be just a pro forma confirmation for another five years of Berdimuhammedov, and the likelihood that he may be declared “president for life” in the near future is high. Yet, holding even moderately contested elections would give Berdimuhamedov some clear benefits, appearing “democratic” and demonstrating that he is in fact “the best for the job”. As it currently stands, though, it seems more likely that he wants to crush any hope for alternative by co-opting the very notion of democratic plurality.
But that’s actually the problem. Even though Turkmenistan is a single-party state, ironically, in a country such as Turkmenistan that has a record of rigged elections and a former president-for-life, too many votes for the incumbent president could cast a dark shadow over the legitimacy of the elections and not vice versa. The headache for our “Arkadag” (“Protector”) is that his “opponents” need to be strong candidates who could pose a danger to his rule. What’s key is not how to defeat his counterparts, but how to make the elections look real. When there is a ballot box but there are no viable candidates, it can become a nightmare for the man who wants to be seen as the modern leader of what he calls “the era of great changes” and in many ways different from his predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov.
Unfortunately, Berdimuhammedov likes the theatrical. You may remember his appearance as a singing star playing guitar on Turkmen TV? Or during a conference of the Galkynysh National Revival Movement, he gave a speech highly praising the achievements of that movement, only to then declare its termination in the very same breath without any reason? I wonder how much longer before my people are tired of drama.