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Turkmenistan Prepares to Elect New President

Voters in Turkmenistan will cast ballots, this Sunday, in the country's first multi-candidate presidential election. The election was scheduled following the December death of President Saparmurat Niyazov, who ruled Turkmenistan since 1991. VOA's Lisa McAdams in Moscow has details:

Acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is believed to be the front-runner in the race, having been openly supported by state media and top ranking officials, including the head of the country's Central Election Commission. He is a long-time Niyazov insider who rose through the ranks to become deputy prime minister.

Unlike all previous elections in Turkmenistan, this one offers voters the choice of six candidates, rather than one. However, the other candidates are little known and all hail from the same political party, the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. There is no opposition candidate in the race.

The West's main election monitoring body, The Organization For Security and Cooperation in Europe, has expressed concerns about the pre-election campaign, particularly regarding the rights of candidates and what the OSCE says is a lack of provisions regulating media coverage of the campaign.

The OSCE says there was not enough time to send monitors to the elections, but that a team of experts will be sent to Turkmenistan immediately after the vote. It also says it will not be issuing its usual final report assessing the outcome of the elections.

The director of The Heritage Foundation's Moscow office, Yevgeni Volk, says he is worried the election will not meet Western democratic standards.

"I'm not very enthusiastic about the prospects for a free and fair election in Turkmenistan. The problem is that for more than a decade, the country suffered from a very tough totalitarian regime and I believe it won't be easy to get rid of its legacy for quite some time. In fact, Turkmenbashi [Niyazov] passed away quite recently and his successors don't seem, at least so far, the [type of] guys who really want a quick transition to a democratic, free-market economy," said Volk. "In fact, they were brought to power by Turkmenbashi and none seems to be a proponent [supporter] of democratic and free society."

Analyst Volk says the election is about more than political power. He says it also holds the promise of near-certain economic struggle among Turkmen clans, all vying for control over huge profits from natural gas, of which Turkmenistan is the former Soviet Union's second leading exporter.

At the same time, Volk does not predict major policy changes. He says all six candidates have pledged to continue the late president's policies, if elected.

Still, there have been some indications from the campaign trail that at least one of the candidates, Acting President Berdymukhammedov, has been hinting of possible changes. His purported reform pledges cover everything from allowing Internet access to the public, to restoring the educational system.

Volk acknowledges some minor changes may be inevitable, if the government wants to put to rest lingering fears of possible social unrest like that seen earlier in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. But he says the possibility of a so-called "Color Revolution" in Turkmenistan seems unlikely.

"I don't think it will arise," said Volk. "For many years, the opposition was suppressed. The people were deprived of any political institutions or civil society. But, of course, we see examples of other countries. Romania, for example, where unrest swept Ceaucescu in a short period of time. So, I believe it is very difficult to predict what sort of developments in the short-term we'll see in Turkmenistan. And, much will depend on the nature of opposition."

The five other candidates running for president of Turkmenistan include the deputy petroleum industry and mineral resources minister, Ishanguly Nuryev, a city head, Orazmyrad Garajayev, a city governor, Ashirniyaz Pomanov, a parliament deputy, Amanyaz Atajykov, and a district head, Mukhammetnazar Gurbanov.

U.S. State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack says the United States hopes that, as part of the succession process, there will be free, open, fair elections. But he expressed concern, just weeks before the election, that Turkmenistan still, as he puts it, "has a long way to go to reach that goal."