Rights groups criticise Turkmenistan elections

Image source, AFP
Image caption, Critics say that the presence of two parties in the parliamentary elections is meaningless because both are loyal to the president

Human rights groups have criticised the outcome of parliamentary elections in Turkmenistan which have been won overwhelmingly by parties supportive of President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

They say the authorities only paid lip service to genuine reform in one of the most repressive countries in the world.

But Turkmen officials say that the country is becoming more democratic.

Sunday's vote was contested by more than one party for the first time in the country's history.

But rights groups say the polls in the gas-rich Central Asian state were marked by a total lack of any opposition to President Berdymukhamedov.

The governing Democratic Party took 47 of the 125 seats in parliament, while the newly-formed Party of Industrialists - also sympathetic to the president - took 14 seats, state media said on Thursday. Turnout was a colossal 91.33%.

The remaining seats were taken by representatives of trade unions, women's groups, young people's organisations and religious groups who are all staunchly pro-government.

Turkmenistan is a Muslim-majority country of 5.5 million people.

Although much of its population is impoverished, most Turkmens benefit from free gas and electricity.

Mr Berdymukhamedov's predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in late 2006, built a cult of personality and was responsible for a number of maverick policies, including banning opera and renaming the months of the year - including two after himself and his mother.

Mr Berdymukhamedov has been accused by critics of building his own personality cult.

'All-permeating fear'

Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights head Farid Tukhbatulin argues that the presence of two parties in the parliamentary elections is meaningless because both are loyal to the president and that genuine opposition leaders are either in jail or in exile.

Amnesty International has also condemned the elections, arguing that they took place amid "an atmosphere of total repression, denial of the basic human rights, and the all-permeating fear that has gripped society in Turkmenistan for years".

In a statement Amnesty's John Dalhuisen said that recent reforms "amount to no more than token gestures designed to distract the international community".

Image source, AFP
Image caption, President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is accused of presiding over a government with one of the worst human rights records in the world

Observers linked to the Organisation on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said that while Turkmenistan had made some improvement on consolidating the legal framework for elections, "fundamental freedoms continue to be restricted and that the choice between competing political alternatives is limited".

President Berdymukhamedov was re-elected last year for another term with a landslide majority, with officials claiming that he had secured more than 97% of the vote.

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