Election Turkmenistan presidential election 2017. A facade of pluralism

On 12 February 2017, the president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, won a predictably handsome presidential election victory with a margin of 97.7% and an impressive turnout of 97.28%. At first sight it might seem like just another Soviet-style election, with a solitary contender predestined to win a plebiscitary type contest. During this election, however, the Turkmen political elite constructed a facade of pluralism by running an unprecedented nine candidates representing three political parties.

Published on balticworlds.com on March 20, 2017

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On 12 February 2017, the president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, won a predictably handsome presidential election victory with a margin of 97.7% and an impressive turnout of 97.28%. At first sight it might seem like just another Soviet-style election, with a solitary contender predestined to win a plebiscitary type contest.  During this election, however, the Turkmen political elite constructed a facade of pluralism by running an unprecedented nine candidates representing three political parties.

Power and control

When the Soviet Union collapsed the local communist party was transformed after a single meeting into the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT), which remained the only legal party for twenty years. Sapmurat Niyazov, communist general secretary since 1985, simultaneously rebranded himself as Turkmenistan’s first president. Niyazov had become well known to for his eccentric personality: he declared himself ‘Turkmenbashi’ (leader of all Turkmen) and established an elaborate personality cult, which included the virtual deification of his family. Amongst his most notable exploits was renaming the days of the week and months of the year after himself and family members, and ordering the construction of a plethora of statues to honour his parents and siblings.[1] When in 2001 his ghost-written Rukhnama appeared, it quickly became compulsory reading for all levels of education and society and was quickly followed three years later by a second volume. Both books constituted an attempt to provide a national, spiritual and political direction to the Turkmen people. The oath of loyalty at the beginning of Rukhnama, read aloud by children each morning, concluded by declaring that ‘at the moment of my betrayal’ of the President ‘let my breath stop’.

After Niyazov’s sudden death in December 2006, Berdymukhamedov assumed power and, following his predecessor’s example, the new incumbent established an eccentric personality cult of his own. State media frequently presented Berdymukhamedov as a master of numerous physical disciplines, including horse riding, car racing, cycling and weight lifting. In October 2011, he was given the title ‘Hero of Turkmenistan’ and in 2015 a 21m gold-covered bronze sculpture of Berdymukhamedov on a horse was unveiled in the capital, Ashgabat.[2] Attempts to present himself as a spiritual leader have led Berdymukhamedov to claim to have authored 36 books since coming to power. Not long before this recent election, officials were shown on state television bowing their heads and kissing the president’s latest book when it was given to them. The book is dedicated to the subject of tea.

Who wants to be a president?

Turkmenistan is a presidential republic. While separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judiciary is enshrined in the Constitution, the president rules without restraint. He has the right to hire and fire members of the cabinet of ministers along with regional governors, heads of cities and districts and members of the judiciary, including the Supreme Court. Presidential rule extends to all aspects of life and is unhindered by any countervailing forces.

Even the decision to have ‘opposition’ parties came from the president and their formation and composition have also resulted from presidential decisions.[3] Cognisant that Turkmenistan’s democratic credentials were weakened by virtue of being a one-party state, Berdymukhamedov introduced a new Law on Political Parties in 2012, which facilitated the establishment of the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs just in time to contest the 2013 parliamentary elections, and the Agrarian Party launched in September 2014. These parties are the progeny of the presidential administration and are in no way rivals of each other. Following Soviet-era practices a number of public associations and groups, representing sections of the workforce, women, and youth are also represented in parliament. The 2017 contest was the first time under Berdymukhamedov’s decade-long repressive rule, candidates nominated by parties other than the Democratic Party were allowed to participate in a presidential election.

Presidential candidates must be over 40, without a criminal record and with 15 years continual residency in the country. The 2016 Constitution and the 2013 Election Code, most recently amended in November 2016, regulated the 2017 presidential contest. The 2016 Constitution removed the 70-year-old age limit for presidential candidates and extended the term from five to seven years. This has had the dual effect of less presidential elections in the future and facilitating a presidency for life. The previous time the constitutionally defined age limit was changed was in 2006 within days of Turkmenbashi’s death. Then, the constitution had set a lower age limit of 50. However, as Berdymukhammadov was only 49, the constitution was quickly changed to reduce the age limit to 40.

The regime maintained that the 2017 election was an important landmark in the country’s democratic development given the fact that it was the first in which multiple parties could nominate presidential candidates. Despite the unprecedented number of candidates, however, the incumbent did not face any real competition given that his challengers either represented façade parties or worked for government agencies subservient to Berdymukhammadov. The president’s electoral ‘rivals’ were: the deputy head of Mary Province, Jumanazar Annayev; the director of the Seidi oil refinery and member of parliament, Ramazan Durdyyev; the deputy head of the Dashoguz regional administration, Meretdurdy Gurbanov; the chief of the department of economy and development of the Akhal regional administration, Serdar Jelilov; the CEO of Garabogazsulfat, the production association of the Turkmenchemistry state concern, Suleimannepes Nurnepesov; the deputy chairman of the state food industry, Maksat Annanepesov; the candidate of the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, Bekmyrat Atalyev; and Agrarian Party candidate Durdygylych Orazov. None of them were household names.

Electioneering Turkmen style

Presidential elections are conducted under a second-ballot majoritarian system[4] though it is inconceivable that an incumbent would not be elected in the first round. Indeed, presidential victories have been remarkable for their overwhelming levels of approval for the president and for spectacular turnout levels, which are difficult to reconcile with observations from independent election monitors from the OSCE.

Up to 2000 voters can be registered per polling station and 2578 precinct election commissions (PECs) were established in Turkmenistan for the 2017 contest along with 39 out-of-country polling stations (hosted at embassies/consulates – these constitute about 2% of the total vote) to facilitate the 3,252,243 million citizens registered to vote. The 15 members of the Central Election Commission (CEC) responsible for conducting the election are all presidential appointees. Candidates from political parties must be nominated at congresses while nominations from groups of voters must obtain the endorsement of at least 10,000 voters, who can only provide signatures in support of one candidate.[5]

Before the election, Berdymukhamedov expressed the hope that the spirit of competition would create a fresh mood in the country:

‘I want more people to take part in the elections for the head of state. This will ensure highly competitive elections, which will in turn ensure the further development of a political culture among all of society and in every citizen, enhancing the unity of the people and power, and create social cohesion along democratic principles’.[6]

However, Berdymukhamedov faced no criticism from his eight anonymous handpicked rivals. Rather, they praised Turkmenistan’s remarkable economic and political successes.

The costs of preparing and holding elections were covered by the state. Candidates did not organise their own campaign but rather state election commissions organised their meetings with voters and the content and printing of their campaign literature. Election-related legislation does not contain any provisions on campaign financing or reporting. The state monopolises television, radio and print media while Internet access is highly restricted. Despite the existence of seven domestic TV channels, four radio stations and 40 newspapers, there is no private media in Turkmenistan. During the campaign, the State media continued to focus on Berdymukhamedov, officially in his capacity as president rather than as an election candidate, and there were no presidential debates. The electoral campaign avoided any mention of economic hardship.

Results, reactions, implications

Predictably, Berdymukhamedov enjoyed a landslide election victory, completely eclipsing his eight handpicked ‘rivals’, none of whom had the temerity to criticise any aspect of his decade-long rule.

Despite his nation’s deteriorating economy, his official popularity reached ever-greater stratospheric proportions with almost 98% supporting the incumbent with a near-universal turnout (97.28%). The official level of support for Berdymukhamedov and the election turnout have increased at every presidential contest since he assumed power in 2007. During his first election outing Berdymukhamedov took 89.23% of the vote (95% turnout) while this rose to 97.14% (96.28% turnout) five years later.

The breakdown of votes allegedly cast in the 2017 election was as follows:

  • Berdymukhamedov Gurbanguli – Democratic Party of Turkmenistan – 97.69% (3,090,610 votes),
  • Annanepesov Maksat – Non-Party -1.02% (32,269 votes),
  • Atalyev Bekmyrat – Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs – 0.36% (11,389 votes),
  • Annayev Jumanazar – Non-Party -0.21% (6,643 votes),
  • Dzhelilov Serdar – Non-Party – 0.25% (7,909 votes),
  • Gurbanov Meretdurdy – Non-Party – 0.17% (5,378 votes),
  • Durdyyev Ramazan – Non-Party – 0.15% (4745 votes);
  • Nurnepesov Suleymannepes – Non-Party – 0.09% (2,847 votes);
  • Orazov Durdygylych – Agrarian Party – 0.06% (1,898 votes)


Significantly, the bottom six candidates received fewer than the 10,000 endorsements required to be registered as an election candidate. Shortly after the election, President Berdymukhamedov promoted his ‘rival’ Maksat Annanepesov from deputy chairman of the National Food Industry Association of Turkmenistan to chairman.

You can tell a lot about elections by who congratulates the winner. In the case of Turkmenistan, most of the world remained indifferent but there were notable salutations from the Presidents of Turkey (Erdoğan), China (Xi Jinping) and Russia (Putin), with the latter claiming that the election result ‘confirms your high level of political influence, wide recognition for all you have accomplished while in office as president, and support for your policy of continued efforts to strengthen Turkmenistan’s economy and raise living standards’.[7] The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) election observer mission praised the openness and transparency of the election and noted that Turkmen election laws ‘comply with universally recognized international legal norms pertaining to democratic elections and ensure a sufficient legal foundation for a free and open expression of voters’ will’.[8]

Quo vadis, Turkmenistan?

The election took place at a time of economic crisis as the gas-rich ex-Soviet Central Asian nation felt the effect of a slump in global energy prices. Wasted resources, corruption, inefficiencies and vanity projects such as the estimated $2.3 billion spent on a new airport in Ashgabat, which opened in late-2016 despite the paucity of visitors to the hermit republic, exacerbated this overall decline in living standards. The deteriorating economy, which has manifested itself in reported food shortages and the 2015 devaluation of the national currency, the manat, are difficult to reconcile with official rhetoric that, under Berdymukhamedov’s skillful guidance, Turkmenistan has entered an era of unprecedented prosperity.

Berdymukhamedov will not have to face the electorate again until 2024. By then he will be 66 years old but is unlikely to feel the impulse to retire, and recent constitutional changes facilitate him being president for life, a title formally conferred on his predecessor. He may also be preparing the grounds for establishing an informal heriditary monarchy, as exists in some communist or post-communist states such as Azerbaijan – another energy-rich post-Soviet state located on the Caspian Sea.

In November 2016, just three months before the presidential contest, Berdymukhamedov’s only son, Serdar, was elected to Turkmenistan’s 125-member parliament, the Mejilis. The margin of Serdar’s by-election victory – he took only 83% of the vote – suggested he still had some way to go before matching his father’s near-total share of the electorate. Serdar’s elevation to parliament despite maintaining a low-profile (even his age is not public information) suggests that he might be in the process of being groomed to eventually succeed his father. If that is indeed the case we might say that Turkmenistan is evolving into a relatively free polity – that is one that provides freedoms for relatives.


[1]                    Polese, A. and S. Horak (2015) “A tale of two presidents: personality cult and symbolic nation-building in Turkmenistan”, Nationalities Papers 43(3): 457-478

[2]                 Shaun Walker ‘Turkmenistan’s singing dictator heralds upcoming elections’, The Guardian, 1 February 2017

[3]                 See Donnacha Ó Beacháin and Rob Kevlihan. ‘Imagined democracy? Nation-building and elections in Central Asia’, Nationalities Papers 43.3 (2015): 495-513; Donnacha Ó Beacháin, 2007, ‘The Necessary Lie: Political Parties and Elections in Central Asia’ in David Louis Dasseault (ed.) The Commonwealth of Independent States: Form and Substance (2007) Helsinki: Kikimora/Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki, pp: 269-298; Donnacha Ó Beacháin, ‘Turkmenistan’ in Donnacha Ó Beacháin and Abel Polese (eds), The Coloured Revolutions in the Former Soviet Republics: Successes and Failures, (2010) London: Routledge  pp. 217-236.

[4]                 In most second-ballot systems, a second round of voting is usually held within 2 weeks but in Turkmenistan the repeat election can be held up to 3 months later.

[5]                 At least 300 signatures must be collected in each of at least a third of Turkmenistan’s districts and cities.

[6]                 Turkmenistan Adopts Constitution Broadening President’s Powers. 14 September, 2016 http://www.eurasianet.org/node/80526

[7]                 ‘Congratulations to Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov on winning Turkmenistan’s presidential election’, 13 February 2017. http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/53866

[8]                 ‘CIS observers declare high level of Turkmenistan’s election campaign’, Interfax Central Asia General Newswire, 9 February 2012.

  • by Donnacha Ó Beacháin Abel Polese,

    Donnacha Ó Beacháin is Director of Research at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University and Abel Polese is a Research Fellow at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University.

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