Turkmenistan's Election Party Soured by Cold and "Low" Turnout

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov insisted presidential elections on February 12 should be held in festive spirit, and so they were. 

As is customary in Turkmenistan, music poured forth from several polling stations in Ashgabat as dance troupes did their bit, perhaps even upping the tempo a little to compensate for the unusual, subfreezing temperatures.

Also outside, stalls did a brisk trade selling sugary soft drinks, buns, pies, and the traditional Turkmen deep-fried sweet "peshme" snack. Girls in national costumes also stood at the entrances to the voting halls holding trays with free flat churek bread and peshme.

First-time voters and the over-70s were, as usual, given presents: cutlery sets, stationery. Perhaps most usefully, women were given lengths of fabric to turn into clothes.

What they weren't giving away this time around were copies of the Rukhnama, the spiritual guide and historical treatise written by the country's first president (for that is how he's known locally), Saparmurat Niyazov. For the sake of balance, they weren't giving away books by the current president, either, though he's certainly written a few since coming to power upon Niyazov’s death in late 2006.

And yet something was not quite right, at least in the capital. Compared with 2007, when hordes turned up to cast their ballot at opening time, there was less activity this time around. 

It is hard to say what might have kept people away: the lack of interest, the cold weather, opposition to the government?

It isn't that people didn't know about the poll, since posters and banners were stuck up in shops and bus stops all over the place. But for all that election-boosting publicity, you would have been hard-pressed to find somebody that could name any of candidates other than Berdymukhamedov, never mind what they stood for.

Figures coming out of the Central Election Commission seemed to bear out these firsthand impressions. By midday, 48 percent of voters had turned out -- a fairly meager number compared with the 66 percent at the same stage during the last elections.

Happily for the authorities, those numbers rapidly shot up by the end of the day to reach 96.3 percent. Still, a bit disappointing when you think turnout was a dizzying 98.7 percent in 2007.

The only international delegation of observers in town are from the Commonwealth of Independent States, a club of post-Soviet countries, who have notoriously given clean bills of health to pretty suspect votes, so there is little real way of gauging the extent of any possible electoral fraud. There were also, of course, over 2,000 government observers overseeing the vote under the auspices of the Presidential National Democracy and Rights Institute.

Within hours of the polls closing, workers quickly mobilized to remove all campaign posters. On Monday morning in Ashgabat, it is almost as if it never really happened at all.

Turkmenistan's Election Party Soured by Cold and "Low" Turnout

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