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An Electoral Theatre

It’s hardly a secret that Turkmenistan is one of the most unashamedly authoritarian countries in the world. Why do they even bother holding elections?

by Donnacha O Beachain and Abel Polese 19 January 2018

Turkmenistan has borrowed the form — but not the substance — of a democratic system. Officially, it is a presidential republic with the separation of powers between the executive, legislature, and judiciary enshrined in the constitution. In reality, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov enjoys untrammelled power; at will he sacks ministers, regional governors, mayors, and members of the judiciary. To demonstrate his authority, he frequently carries out these humiliating dismissals on national television.


The first post-independence leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, who governed the country until his death in 2006, refused to engage in the pretence of multi-party democracy and abolished presidential elections altogether. Instead he bestowed upon himself the title of “Turkmenbashi” (“leader of all Turkmen”) and became “president for life.” Like his predecessor, Berdymukhamedov has manufactured an elaborate personality cult. On state media he is depicted as a master of numerous physical disciplines and the author of over 30 books on everything from tea to horses. In 2015, a 21-meter, gold-covered statue of the president on a horse was unveiled in the capital, Ashgabat.


Cognizant that a one-party state that avoided elections weakened Turkmenistan’s democratic credentials, Berdymukhamedov has introduced changes that appear revolutionary in form but are imperceptibly modest in content. The first of these was having multi-candidate (though not multi-party) presidential elections in 2007 and 2012. The president then introduced a new law on political parties in 2012, which ended the one-party state by facilitating the establishment of the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs just in time for it to contest the 2013 parliamentary elections, and the Agrarian Party, which was launched in September 2014. These parties are the progeny of the presidential administration and are in no way rivals.


The presidential contest held a year ago demonstrated important refinements to how elections are conducted and reinforced the trend toward creating an illusion of diversity. For the first time in Turkmenistan’s history, the election included candidates nominated by multiple parties. However, Berdymukhamedov faced no criticism from his eight handpicked unknowns, whose campaigns were funded and coordinated by the state. Rather than being punished for increased hardship among the general population, the president found unflagging support, his popularity at an implausibly high level – at least according to official figures (97.7 percent of the vote, 97.28 percent turnout).


Deformed Reforms


Presidential elections, thus, are conducted in a manner that superficially mimics democratic practice. Announcements are made, campaigns are managed, election commissions established, vote counts held, and victors announced. During these elections, if the official narrative is to be believed, voters happily eschew all alternatives to the status quo, and the president gratefully acknowledges yet another overwhelming vote of confidence for his unrestrained power.


The question arises, then, why hold elections at all? If one enjoys supreme power, why toy with illusionary alternative candidates? What is the purpose of devoting time and resources to an elaborate charade? In part, this is by default. Turkmenistan is a Soviet creation, and the country had never been governed democratically prior to having independence thrust upon it when the USSR collapsed in 1991. Discredited Soviet rule, which the post-independence, political elite had previously endorsed, could no longer serve as a basis for authority. Consequently, Niyazov and Berdymukhamedov have maintained a slimmed-down version of Soviet authoritarian rule, which, while not a Stalinist model, is certainly more repressive than the practices of the late Gorbachev era, when a variety of diverse interest groups and movements bloomed.


A painting showing Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in a cotton field.


Elections are not a mechanism to choose leaders but, rather, a ritual performed to reaffirm faith in the regime. Rather than indicating a hesitant step towards democracy, a multi-party presidential election is simply an attempt at impression management, to enhance Turkmenistan’s reputation and to create the illusion of political pluralism.


Elections also provide an opportunity for congratulatory back-slapping from fellow authoritarian leaders. While most of the world remained indifferent to Berdymuhamedov’s re-election, the presidents of, for example, Turkey, Belarus, Azerbaijan, China, and Russia enthusiastically endorsed it. Similarly, election observers from the Kremlin-sponsored Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) praised the presidential contest’s openness and transparency. Turkmenistan will not be admitted to the club of democratic countries anytime soon but through such mutual support groups it can claim membership of a powerful alliance of authoritarian regimes, which extol an “alternative” form of democracy informed by local culture, history, and traditions.


Since assuming office in February 2007, Berdymuhamedov has shown little inclination of stepping down during his lifetime. Retirement is rarely an option in these kinds of regimes and life cycles rather than electoral cycles dictate the length of executive rule. As with his predecessor, Niyazov, a weak presidential heartbeat is more likely to be the harbinger of executive change than a robust oppositional challenge. There is some evidence that Berdymuhamedov may be grooming his only son, Serdar, for high politics. Three months after his father’s carefully choreographed presidential election triumph, Serdar was “elected” to Turkmenistan’s toothless legislature, the Mejilis.


Turkmenistan demonstrates how an autocratic elite can build a facade of democracy as an international public relations exercise. With very modest efforts and restructuring, the Turkmen elite has begun to show consideration for political pluralism, at least officially, in an effort to improve the country’s image internationally. Transitioning Turkmenistan from a one-party to a multi-party system has been primarily motivated by a desire to improve the regime’s international reputation. These changes, while reversible, are likely to be built upon during the coming years and Turkmenistan will remain a fascinating case of how authoritarian states try to minimize risks by acquiring the trappings of democratic governance. 

Donnacha O Beachain is associate professor of politics at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University. Abel Polese is senior research fellow at Dublin City University and Tallinn University of Technology. For an in-depth exploration of this topic, see Abel Polese, Donnacha O Beachain, and Slavomír Horak. "Strategies of legitimation in Central Asia: regime durability in Turkmenistan." Contemporary Politics (2017): 1-19.


Text image by Abel Polese. 

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