Turkmenistan vote set to establish political dynasty

FILE - Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, left, speaks to journalists after casting his ballot as his son Serdar Berdymukhamedov, second right, with other family members look on at a polling station in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, Feb. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Alexander Vershinin, File)

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan (AP) — Turkmenistan citizens voted Saturday in an election that could mark the beginning of a political dynasty for the gas-rich Central Asian nation’s sitting president.

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, 64, announced the vote last month, setting stage for his 40-year old son Serdar to take over. Preliminary results are expected Sunday, but few doubt that the president’s son will win by landslide.

Serdar Berdymukhamedov has risen through a series of increasingly prominent government posts and most recently has served as the country’s deputy prime minister, answering directly to his father.

He is facing what appears to be token competition from eight other nominal contenders in Saturday’s vote, including a deputy regional governor and a lawmaker.

“My main goal is to continue on the glorious path of development built during 30 years of independence and to successfully implement programs aimed to ensure a high level of social conditions for the people,” Serdar Berdymukhamedov said while presenting his platform in televised speech.

Speaking to reporters after casting his ballot, he vowed to continue the country’s neutral foreign policy if elected.

No election in post-Soviet Turkmenistan has been considered genuinely competitive. While eight candidates ran against Berdymukhamedov in the last election in 2017, all expressed support for his government and Berdymukhamedov garnered more than 97% of the vote.

Berdymukhamedov came to power in 2006 after the death of the eccentric Saparmurat Niyazov and established a pervasive personality cult similar to that of his predecessor. Under his rule, the country has remained difficult for outsiders to enter. Turkmenistan has not reported any cases of infection in the coronavirus pandemic.

It also has struggled to diversify its economy, which is overwhelmingly dependent on its vast natural gas reserves. China has replaced Russia as the top export destination for Turkmen gas, while Russian demand is expected to shrink further amid tensions with the West over Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Berdymukhamedov has cultivated an image of robust health with media stunts that included firing a pistol at a man-sized target while riding a bicycle and hoisting a gold weightlifting bar, to the applause of his Cabinet. He is titled Arkadag, or Protector.

On a visit to a polling station with his wheelchair-bound, 85 year-old mother, the Turkmen president hailed the vote as “historic.”

When Berdymukhamedov announced the vote last month, he said that the country should be run by younger people. His son has recently turned 40, the minimum age for president according to the Turkmen law.

During the campaign, all candidates praised Berdymukhamedov, who said he will retain the post of the head of the country’s upper house of parliament.

Turnout was heavy, with over 90% of voters casting their ballots hours before polls closed.

Folk dancers and singers performed as loud music blared from loudspeakers at polling stations. Engulfing the stations where fumes from burning harmala, a plant widely used in Turkmenistan to fumigate homes and public spaces to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases.