Turkmenistan dictator's son wins presidential vote

Anton Lomov and Christopher Rickleton, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Mar 15 2022 06:00 PM

Turkmenistan leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov  EPA-EFE
Turkmenistan leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov attends a meeting of the Council of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Heads of State in Ashgabat on October 11, 2019. Alexei Druzhinin/EPA-EFE/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/File

The son of Turkmenistan's autocrat leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, decisively won the presidential election, officials said Tuesday, paving the way for hereditary succession in one of the world's most tightly controlled countries.

Serdar Berdymukhamedov, 40, won the ballot held last Saturday with 73 percent of the vote, the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) said in a statement on its website.

Nine candidates stood in the poll in the isolated country of six million people, but few doubted that Berdymukhamedov's only son Serdar -- who has pledged to pursue his father's course -- would take over the country's top job.

Berdymukhamedov senior, who is now Turkmenistan's outgoing president, chair of the cabinet and senate chief, has been the regime's top decision-maker for the last 15 years.

The strongman known as the gas-rich country's "protector" has dominated public life since the country's founding president, Saparmurat Niyazov, died in 2006 and he tolerates no dissent.

Last month Berdymukhamedov said he would step aside and allow "young leaders" to govern, triggering a snap vote.

In the end Berdymukhamedov junior obtained a victory margin far lower than the 98- and 97-percent routs posted by his 64-year-old father in the hermit state's previous two elections.

- No change to neutrality -

Observers say his father will still be holding the reins, after the family patriarch pledged to remain in politics as head of the senate.

One thing that is unlikely to change is the republic's neutral status in international affairs.

Serdar Berdymukhamedov told journalists last Saturday that status would remain if he won because it "allows Turkmenistan to develop fully-fledged relations with all states".

The country that honours its leaders with ostentatious gold statues remains strongly dependent on China, which dominates purchases of its natural gas. 

Smaller volumes purchased by Russia's Gazprom, meanwhile, could be threatened by the impact of sanctions targeting Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine -- a conflict that Turkmen state media has all but ignored.

The country has also not admitted any coronavirus cases since the outbreak of the pandemic.

The now-confirmed father-son leadership transition will be the first of its kind in Central Asia, a former communist region that also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

CEC officials in Turkmenistan had taken their time to announce the results of one of the world's most predictable elections, which saw Berdymukhamedov face off against relatively unknown civil servants and provincial officials.

On Sunday, CEC's chairman Gulmyrat Myradov told journalists who had attended a press conference in expectation of hearing the results that the latter were being delayed due to "the need for a thorough count".

Across the Caspian Sea in the Caucasus region, Azerbaijan became the first former Soviet country to establish a dynasty, when President Ilham Aliyev took the helm upon father Heydar Aliyev's death in 2003. 

Tajikistan, the ex-Soviet bloc's poorest successor state, is expected to follow a similar path. Upper house head Rustam Emomali, 34, is in pole position to succeed veteran leader Emomali Rakhmon, 69, should Rakhmon retire or prove unable to fulfil his duties.

The younger Berdymukhamedov's inauguration is scheduled for next Saturday.