The United States Thursday expressed cautious hope that this week's election in Turkmenistan will be a step toward democracy, even though the new president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, won with nearly 90 percent of the vote. A senior U.S. diplomat attended Wednesday's inauguration ceremonies in Ashgabat. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Officials here do not contest the view of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that the Turkmenistan election was neither free nor fair.

But they say fact that the energy-rich country had a contested election for the first time since its independence in 1991, and that Mr. Berdimuhammedov's stated vote margin was smaller than those claimed by his predecessor, are signs of possible progress after years of stifling one-man rule.

Mr. Berdimuhammedov was sworn into office Wednesday, three days after getting what officials said was nearly 90 percent of the vote in a six-candidate election to succeed the late dictator Saparmurat Niyazov , who died of heart attack in December.

The voter turnout was said to have been 99 percent, a figure Western diplomats said was implausible.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the election process represents a modest step toward political and electoral change in Turkmenistan that he said could create future conditions for free, fair and truly competitive elections that do meet international standards.

He welcomed the decision by Turkmen authorities to field multiple candidates, and said the United States will encourage the Ashgabat government to follow up with what he termed the essential first steps toward establishing a more transparent and open society.

McCormack said under questioning the United States intends to engage the new government despite the election shortcomings, and that this week's events should be seen in the context of Turkmenistan's emergence from one of the world's most rigid dictatorships.

"We are ready to engage this new government," he said. "As I pointed out, we view this as a modest first step. But let's also remember that this is a country that is emerging from the shadows -- only three months out -- from a cult-of-personality dictatorship. So they are making the first baby steps beyond that."

"So I think that we have offered a sober assessment of this electoral process. We encourage further such steps and we are going to engage with the government to offer that encouragement," he added.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher attended the inaugural ceremonies, and met with senior government officials.

Spokesman McCormack, defending the hopeful U.S. view of the events in Turkmenistan, said it is not realistic to expect an overnight conversion from a closed society to democracy, and that there is no single model for democratic transition for every country.

An exiled Turkmen opposition figure in Sweden, Khudaiberdy Orazov, was less optimistic. He said the electoral process amounted to a coup, and that the junta which staged it is simply consolidating its control.

Orazov, a former chairman of Turkmenistan's central bank, was chosen by the exiled opposition to be its presidential candidate but he was barred from returning home.