Turkmenistan: Theoretically, Free Nominations and Glasnost in Elections
The state daily Neitral'nyi Turkmenistan ran an interview with parliamentary officials December 2 that purports to illustrate how elections will be free in Turkmenistan.
The only problem is that the enabling legislation to guarantee a plurality of political parties has never been passed, and every aspect of the nomination process will be at the discretion of local officials.
Last time "free" elections were held in 2007 and Gurbanguly Berdymukhahmedov handily prevailed, there were some opponents permitted to spoke at carefully-choreographed regional meetings on approved topics that gave the public a bit of a chance to vent about mismanaged agriculture or poor education. So we can expect some of that next February in the next presidential elections, but it does not appear at this time as if the all-powerful Turkmen leader will legalize any serious alternative parties, much less allow any real rival to appear on the scene.
Gurbangul Bayramov, chairman of the Mejlis (parliamentary) Committee on Work with Local Representative Government Bodies and Self-Management was interviewed by Neitral'nyi Turkmenistan and asked about participation in the elections by civic groups.
Bayramov cited the constitutional guarantee for citizens to "create political parties" (note the plural) and other civic associations and the obligation for them to "conduct their activity under the law". So in theory, people could just form a group and show up -- except there is no law to govern them. The law on civic associations permits citizens to "create associations on the basis of common interests to achieve common goals." But they must register at the Ministry of Justice -- and there's the hitch -- officials will only legalize those organizations that are loyal to the government.
The Law on the Elections of the President of Turkmenistan says that political parties and civic associations have the right to appoint national observers, nominate their representatives to electoral commissions at all levels and nominate candidates as president. Getting your group a spot on the electoral commissions is vital, as these bodies determine the real conditions for elections. But this is another level where state loyalists will ensure conformity with the regime's wishes.
The law theoretically allows political parties and civic associations the right to conduct campaigns and "freely and comprehensively discuss the electoral programs of candidates, their political, business and personal qualities." Yet if there were any protest rallies complaining about the current president, of the sort seen in Russia this week, they would likely be rapidly dispersed by police as "disturbance of the peace."
Neitral'niy Turkmenistan also interviewed Shirin Ahmedova, the former head of the Presidential Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, who is now a member of the Mejlis Committee on Local Representative Government and Self-Management. She said that people who live in the same district can form a group of voters, and after registering in the appropriate electoral commission, take part in elections on an equal basis with civic organizations. So that means in theory, even if you don't have a party or a civic group, you could form a district-based voters' group and run a candidate. But the brave few who tried this in the past either found themselves not registered on technicalities or even arrested.
Another potential damper on participation in a meeting to nominate an opposition candidate -- all participants must register with their name, date of birth, and place of residence.
A headline on the Russian edition of the official website used the same word which Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev popularized in the 1980s: "Glasnost (openness) is a Guarantee for Free Elections." The article said national and foreign election observers would be allowed, and both Turkmen and foreign press could cover the elections.
To avoid a conflict of interest, government officials, judges, prosecutors, members of electoral commissions and the presidential candidates themselves cannot serve as election observers. Foreign election observers may be invited, however they cannot "conduct activity not related to the observation of the preparation and conducting of the elections" or risk losing their accreditation. They must also adhere to a strict time period. That's clearly to prevent any outside organizations that might train campaign managers and candidates, rather than just stick to a strict observation role. But as we know from WikiLeaks, USAID and other agencies have come and gone in Turkmenistan for years and held numerous trainings, so far with little effect.