Thursday, 9 February 2012

Predicting the President's Popularity in Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan holds its presidential ‘elections’ on Sunday, which will pit Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, president, Hero of Turkmenistan and Protector of the nation, against a field of political colossi including factory directors and a deputy mayor for agriculture. 

An excellent post on neweurasia gives a visual indication of the one-sided nature of the contest: all eight candidates are squeezed into a billboard filled with dense text, but the president – unlike his opponents - also has the luxury of appearing on huge posters everywhere across the country.

The contest is so one-sided that it is barely news, but some of the absurdities of the process are worth commenting on. Firstly, as the AP notes, none of the other state-approved candidates have explicitly asked for people’s votes. They have instead praised the president and his ‘epoch of new revival’, or else focused on marginal issues like “introduction of early maturing cotton varieties” and “taking Turkmenistan’s equestrian sport to the international level”.

The OSCE has said there is very little point in monitoring the elections: they have not sent observers, although they have sent a group of experts. The Turkmen government has claimed that the OSCE team said that every effort had been made to make the election free and fair, a claim which the OSCE/ODIHR has called “a blatant fabrication”.

The CIS, the post-Soviet political bloc, is sending its own observers who are – surprise surprise – praising the election campaign as open and transparent. They have also said that it is “within the electoral law and ethic norms, in the correct form, given the national mentality and traditions,” (my emphasis). In other words, the Turkmen nation is not suitable for an honest democracy with free votes but this is close enough.

Another post by neweurasia’s Annasoltan asks what the point of the election even is, given the transparently farcical nature of it (the post also includes a fantastic picture of Berdimuhammedov doing a bit of horse-riding a la Putin). She suggests that the president is rather like a “little boy who’s made up his own game and is ambivalent about letting other people play, because a game without other players is not a game, but a game with players means giving up control.”

I’m inclined to agree. Rather like Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan - although nowhere near as astutely or confidently - Berdimuhammedov seems to want to appear democratic, with all the kudos that entails, but is extremely uncomfortable with what the process would actually mean.

So, as Joshua Foust asked last month the question is what proportion of the vote will Berdimuhammedov give himself? The tried-and-tested dictator’s favourite, over 90%? The OSCE-pleasing sub-80%? Or somewhere in the fantastically-popular-but-still-democratic mid-80s?

His last victory, in 2007, stood at 89% against five opponents, with his closest rival scoring 3%. So my money this time around, with two extra opponents, is on slightly under that, about 85-87% - low enough to give a tiny bit of extra democratic gloss, but still high enough to leave no doubts about his rightful and inevitable ‘victory’.


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