Turkmenistan votes for parliament, opposition absent

The ex-Soviet Central Asian state of Turkmenistan on Sunday held its first multi-party legislative elections, but with no opposition to trouble the dominance of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

Ashgabat: The ex-Soviet Central Asian state of Turkmenistan on Sunday held its first multi-party legislative elections, but with no opposition to trouble the dominance of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

Turkmens cast ballots in the gas-rich country until polls closed at 1930 IST to choose 125 candidates for the seats in the Majlis, or parliament, for the next five years.

Challenging the ruling Democratic Party of Turkmenistan is the Party of Industrialists and Businessmen of Turkmenistan, founded in August 2012 but only nominally oppositional and seen as pro-Berdymukhamedov.

The election was the first in the country attended by a delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which visited polling stations today.

However both the assembly and the human rights office (ODIHR) of the European security body said they would not issue a report before next February.

Speaking on the eve of the election, Berdymukhamedov, known in the secluded country as "Arkadag" or "Protector", said the polls would "demonstrate the extent of developing democracy and civil society in our country."

But there was no sign of genuine dissent in the election campaigns. Almost all opposition groups are based abroad and their leaders fear arrest if they return to Turkmenistan.

At a polling station in one of the capital`s universities, 18-year-old Aman Garlyev said he was casting a ballot for the first time and knew exactly whom to vote for.

"We had a special lesson in our college to help us young voters to understand the importance of the polls. I will support the course of our dear Arkadag," he said.

Another voter casting a ballot in the village of Kipchak 10 kilometres from the capital said he hoped that the new party would better represent him.

"I hope the Party of Industrialists and Businessmen will fight for the interests of rural people and small business," the 43-year-old Geldy Byashimov said after visiting a polling station with his family.

However the party, founded after the president renounced his Democratic Party membership in a bid to put himself above party politics, has yet to show the slightest sign of oppositional tendencies.

Berdymukhamedov has embarked on tentative reforms since taking over after the 2006 death of former dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, whose sometimes bizarre rule made the country one of the most isolated in the world.

Portraits of the leader, who won a new presidential term in February 2012 with 97 per cent of the popular vote, adorned the polling stations today.

Polling officials presented first-time voters with gifts, giving red roses to women and notebooks adorned with the Turkmen national emblem to men. Children dancing and singing as well as new year`s ornaments contributed to the festive atmosphere.

Turnout was 87.7 per cent one hour before polls closed, according to the central election committee, which was expected to announce preliminary results tomorrow at 1130 IST.

Some three million people are eligible to vote. The last legislative elections were in 2008, when the Democratic Party was the only one standing. Polls were to close at 7:00 pm.