Back in February, after Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov visited France and met with President Nicolas Sarkozy, there was some speculation that the French leader had quietly raised human rights issues and suggested some indicators for improvement. Some weeks later. Berdymukhamedov announced he was willing to permit a second party to be registered.
In May, the Turkmen president even said in a speech on state television that he was ordering parliament to draft a law on political parties, the Turkmen Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.
The second party hasn't appeared yet, however.
To date, the ill-named Democratic Party has been the only party allowed to operate since Turkmenistan gained its independence in 1991 -- but technically, it has no law to govern it.
Farid Tuhbatulin, head of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR), told EurasiaNet that according to his sources in Turkmenistan, the Turkmen rubber-stamp parliament has not even yet started drafting the law on parties.
Several times when the Turkmen leader spoke of the putative second party, he acted as if it would depend on the initiative of people ostensibly starting it -- but they never stepped forward. He suggested it would be appropriate to make it the "Agrarian Party" -- this would fit the model of other Central Asian states where the roster of superficial state-controlled parties includes one for farmers. Such parties actually serve as a mechanism to enforce state policy in rural areas and are not authentic grass-roots institutions.
While he has stalled on the issue of the second party, Berdymukhamedov did permit the founding of an "independent magazine" run by the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, a state-created body. The union's magazine doesn't stray from the official line.
Meanwhile, on October 15, nominations got under way for local elections to provincial and town councils -- but without benefit of any second party. The sole Democratic Party and several state-organized "civil society" organizations like Galkynysh (Renewal) are allowed to nominate candidates -- who will only have a few weeks to register and campaign before the December 5 elections.
The United Nations has convened training seminars in Ashgabat and other cities, enabling the state media to crow that Turkmenistan is "complying with international standards" on elections. Technically, some aspects of the electoral process are like any other country's -- they've just left out the pluralism of parties and political platforms.
It's unlikely anyone is going to appear to push an alternative party, however -- civil society is harshly discouraged in Turkmenistan, and independents who have tried to gather support for their nominations even using officially-sanctioned meetings and procedures have gotten into trouble.
While President Berdymukhamedov is always lauded for dismantling the worst features of the cult of personality of his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, there have been some worrisome signs that such a ruler's cult could come back.
On October 25 at a celebration to mark Independence Day, Myrat Garryev, head of the Central Election Commission, made an emotional appeal urging President Berdymukhamedov to serve as president for life, TIHR reported. Garryev, 80, prayed to Allah that this could become possible. The event was broadcast on state television.
Whatever other party or publication emerges, the fact remains that Turkmenistan is under presidential dictatorship. The president personally controls every major -- and many minor -- decisions on every aspect of the economy and society in Turkmenistan. Recently, for example, the Turkmen leader boarded a helicopter to tour building and park construction sites in Ashgabat, later firing poorly-performing officials and instructing the French architectural firm Bouygues in the finer points of building trim.
“It was necessary to plan each detail -- from the lighting to the lawn, from the layout of the box hedges to the development of a recreation area,” the State News Agency of Turkmenistan quoted the president as saying. When the leader of a country feels the need to control even the hedges in the park, small wonder he has trouble letting a second party come into being.