ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan (AP) — Voters in Turkmenistan headed to the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament that is expected to be opposition-free and loyal to the government of the gas-rich Central Asian nation.
A total of 2,602 polling stations opened in Turkmenistan at 7 a.m. (0200 GMT) to accommodate about 3.5 million registered voters, with another 42 polling sites set up at embassies abroad.
Voters will elect 125 members of parliament out of 258 candidates, put forward by three political parties or running independently. All of them support President Serdar Berdymukhamedov.
Berdymukhamedov, 41, was elected last March to succeed his father, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who had run the isolated ex-Soviet country for more than a decade.
Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov came to power after the death of the eccentric Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006 and established a pervasive personality cult similar to that of his predecessor. Under his rule, Turkmenistan has remained difficult for outsiders to enter. It has also struggled to diversify its economy, which is overwhelmingly dependent on its vast natural gas reserves.
Berdymukhamedov has cultivated an image of robust health with media stunts that included firing a pistol at a man-sized target while riding a bicycle and hoisting a gold weightlifting bar, to the applause of his Cabinet. He has the title “Arkadag,” or Protector, and last year stepped down, giving way for his son to assume office.
Earlier this year, Serdar Berdymukhamedov appointed his father to be the chairman of Halk Maslahaty, or People’s Council, the country’s supreme representative body. The People’s Council has the power to change the country’s constitution and determine the main guidelines of domestic and foreign policies, giving the 65-year-old Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov powerful levers to shape the country’s course.
The vote on Sunday will “mark the new stage of democratic changes” in Turkmenistan, President Serdar Berdymukhamedov was quoted as saying by state media.
No election in post-Soviet Turkmenistan, however, has been considered genuinely competitive.