Voting in Turkmenistan is set to establish a political dynasty

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan (AP) — Turkmen citizens cast their ballots Saturday in an election that could mark the start of a political dynasty for the sitting president of the gas-rich Central Asian nation.

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, 64, announced the vote last month, setting the stage for his 40-year-old son Serdar to take over. Preliminary results are expected on Sunday, but few doubt the president’s son will prevail overwhelmingly.

Serdar Berdymukhamedov rose through the ranks through a series of increasingly senior government posts and most recently served as the country’s deputy prime minister, reporting directly to his father.

He faces what appears to be token competition from eight other nominees in Saturday’s vote, including a regional deputy governor and a lawmaker.

“My main goal is to continue on the glorious path of development built for 30 years of independence and to successfully implement programs aimed at ensuring a high level of social conditions for the people,” Serdar Berdymukhamedov said during the presentation of its platform during a televised speech.

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Speaking to reporters after casting his vote, he pledged to continue the country’s neutral foreign policy if elected.

No election in post-Soviet Turkmenistan has been considered truly competitive. While eight candidates ran against Berdymukhamedov in the last election in 2017, all expressed support for his government and Berdymukhamedov garnered over 97% of the vote.

Berdymukhamedov came to power in 2006 after the death of the eccentric Saparmurat Niyazov and established a pervasive personality cult similar to that of his predecessor. Under his reign, the country remained difficult to access for foreigners. Turkmenistan has not reported any cases of infection in the coronavirus pandemic.

It has also struggled to diversify its economy, which largely depends on its vast reserves of natural gas. China has replaced Russia as the main destination for Turkmen gas exports, while Russian demand is expected to decline further due to tensions with the West over Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Berdymukhamedov cultivated a robust health image with media stunts that included firing a pistol at a human-sized target while riding a bicycle and hoisting a gold weightlifting bar, to applause from his cabinet. It is titled Arkadag, or Protector.

During a visit to a polling station with his 85-year-old mother in a wheelchair, the Turkmen president hailed the vote as “historic”.

When Berdymukhamedov announced the vote last month, he said the country should be run by young people. His son has just turned 40, the minimum age to become president under Turkmen law.

During the campaign, all candidates praised Berdymukhamedov, who said he would retain the post of head of the country’s upper house of parliament.

Turnout was high, with more than 90% of voters casting their ballots a few hours before the polls closed.

Folk dancers and singers performed as loud music blared from loudspeakers at polling stations. Engulfing stations where fumes from burning harmala, a plant widely used in Turkmenistan to fumigate homes and public spaces to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

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