Turkmen Mejlis Orders Snap Presidential Election for March 12
Author: Caspian Policy Center
Feb 15, 2022
Turkmenistan's lower chamber of parliament, the Mejlis, has ordered a snap presidential election two years early. Set for Saturday, March 12, the election's short fuse will confound competitors' campaigns and virtually assure that current President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov's son, Serdar, will ascend to the presidency. Serdar Berdimuhamedov’s candidacy was announced on February 14th in the state controlled mass media.
Preparing a Successor
Serdar Berdimuhamedov has been groomed for this transition since 2008, a year after his father assumed the presidency. In that year, Serdar began studies at the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs while concurrently enjoying diplomatic immunity as a nominal counselor of the Turkmen embassy in Moscow. In 2011, Serdar transferred to the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, where he was awarded a degree in European and international security affairs in 2013. Again, he was concurrently a counselor at the Turkmen Mission to United Nations agencies in Geneva.
Then began a whirlwind of government assignments to give Serdar broad, if not deep, exposure to Turkmen governance. From 2013 to 2016, Serdar did two brief stints at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ashgabat in addition to three years as deputy director of the now-defunct State Agency for Management and Use of Hydrocarbon Resources. In November 2016 he was elected to the Mejlis from the 25th parliamentary district, then in March 2018 was appointed deputy foreign minister, a position he held for less than a year before appointment as vice governor of Ahal Province, the political power base of the Ahal Teke tribe, in January 2019., Six months later, in June, Serdar was promoted to governor of Ahal Province. After nine months in that job, in February 2020 Serdar was appointed minister of industry and construction materials. A year later, in February 2021, he was elevated to deputy prime minister for digitization and innovation with concurrent appointments to the Security Council and as chairman of the Supreme Control Chamber of Turkmenistan. Five months later, Serdar was relieved of his positions on the Security Council and Supreme Control Chamber, and his portfolio as deputy prime minister was shifted to economics and finance, with a specific charge of handling "economic and banking issues and international financial organizations.", In November 2021, Serdar was additionally placed in charge of oil and gas exports while retaining the economics and finance portfolio., Oil and gas exports, of course, are the source of over 90 percent of Turkmenistan's foreign exchange earnings and underpin the national economy.
Serdar's rise through military ranks is also impressive. Following two years of mandatory conscription in his youth, from 2001 to 2003, Serdar reappeared in uniform in October 2017 in a nationally televised promotion ceremony from major to lieutenant colonel. Subsequently, in March 2021, he appeared on television wearing the shoulder boards of a full colonel.
Why the Transition Now?
The last presidential election was held in 2017, and in 2020 the constitution was amended to extend the president's term of office from five to seven years. Hence, the next regularly scheduled presidential election should take place in 2024. However, two factors are likely behind President Berdimuhamedov's decision to direct the Mejlis to call early elections. First, Serdar Berdimuhamedov turned 40 last September, the minimum age for a Turkmen president under the constitution. He has at last, after years of grooming, come of age. Second, President Berdimuhamedov is known to suffer from chronic ailments, and despite denials by Turkmen officials, has long been dogged by rumors of shaky health and that he periodically has fallen into diabetic comas., President Berdimuhamedov may have indirectly alluded to the ravages of age in his February 11 speech to the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council), saying, "...two years ago I reached the age of the Prophet [Mohammed]..."
Past as Prologue: What to Expect
By calling for elections on one month's notice, the Mejlis has assured that any competing candidates will have virtually no time to organize a campaign, not that their odds of winning are anything but vanishingly remote. In the 2017 election, nine candidates competed, including one each from the legal political parties (Agrarian Party, Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, and ruling Democratic Party). Of them, President Berdimuhamedov of the Democratic Party won 97.69% of the vote. Only one other candidate even broke one percent. After observing that election, the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe noted widespread irregularities and reported,
"The campaign was carried out in a strictly controlled manner...with the widespread presence of the president’s image and coverage of his official activities, [this] indicated that candidates were not ensured equal opportunities to campaign.... The media environment is dominated by the State’s de facto monopoly and strict control of all news and information services.... In addition, the incumbent’s visibility in the media was significantly greater than that of other contenders, contrary to the principle of equitability.... "
Serdar Berdimuhamedov has been featured prominently in the state-controlled media since his election to parliament in 2018. Normally the state daily newspapers, Russian-language Neytral'nyy Turkmenistan and Turkmen-language Türkmenistan, feature a large photograph of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov on page one, and a major chunk of television news coverage is devoted to his daily activities. Beginning in 2018, however, photographs of Serdar sporadically began to appear on page one, and television news periodically covered him, invariably with his father and occasionally with his son, Kerimguly, as well. No other member of parliament or the Cabinet of Ministers has enjoyed such publicity, and no other presidential candidate will have enjoyed this level of media exposure.,
Establishment of a family dynasty will be more assured if the transition takes place under the control of the current president, and not after he has passed. One should also note that President Berdimuhamedov does not plan to retire completely from public life. He made clear in his Mejlis address, "As Chairman of the Halk Maslahaty I intend to direct my vast life and political experience into this field." Under Article 76 of the Turkmen constitution as amended September 25, 2021, in the event the president is removed from office or incapable of performing duties, the chairman of the Halk Maslahaty becomes acting president. In other words, the elder Berdimuhamedov appears to be staging himself to remain a supreme leader, in the meanwhile continuing to groom his son for eventual full succession.
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 Back issues of Neytral'nyy Turkmenistan may be downloaded from https://metbugat.gov.tm/newspapers?id=11 and nightly news broadcasts on the Watan Habarlary YouTube channel, https://www.youtube.com/c/WatanHabarlaryTM
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