Voters in the isolated, gas-rich Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan are voting for a successor to replace the late president, Saparmurat Niyazov, who died last December. VOA's Lisa McAdams in Moscow reports the current acting president, Gurbanguli Berdymukhammedov, is expected to easily defeat his five lesser-known challengers.

By mid-day local time Sunday, Turkmenistan's Central Election Commission declared the election valid, saying more than half the country's registered voters had cast ballots in the country's first multi-candidate election.

It is impossible to independently confirm the claim as the West's main election monitoring body, the Organization For Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) did not send a team to observe the vote. Nor did the CIS, a loose grouping of former Soviet Republics.

First results are expected as early as Monday and are believed likely to confirm Acting President Berdymukhammedov the winner. But the Director of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office, Yevgeni Volk, says he does not think Mr. Berdymukhammedov's assumption of the presidency will be easy.

"Whoever comes to power, will have to try to re-instate himself as the new leader and it will be very difficult because everyone remembers Turkmenbashi [the late President Saparmurat Niyazov] and his cult of personality," he said. "And of course there will be a very tough struggle for power among various groups who all believe they are better to rule the country."

Analyst Volk predicts that whoever wins will not be in power as long as the late president, Niyazov, who ruled the isolated, mostly-Muslim nation for 21 years.

Turkmenistan is of growing interest to Russia and the West because of its huge natural gas reserves and its status as a stable, neutral country bordering both Afghanistan and Iran.

Mr. Berdymukahmmedov has pledged to continue the late president's policies, if elected. He has also hinted about the possibility of slight reforms. But analyst Volk and others say they see little prospect that changes in Turkmenistan will be speedy or far-reaching.

Human Rights Watch has urged Western governments to make clear to Turkmenistan's next government that it will be judged on solid evidence of human rights progress. HRW characterizes Turkmenistan as "one of the most repressive countries in the world," and says the new government must do more to allow political dissent and open up the media.