Turkmenistan to hold snap March vote after leader drops succession hint

Turkmenistan on Saturday set a snap presidential election for March 12 after autocrat leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said he was ready to allow “young leaders” to govern, with his son expected to succeed him.

A former dentist and health minister, the 64-year-old succeeded the country’s founding president Saparmurat Niyazov in December 2006 after his death and has ruled with an iron fist since.

A spokesman for the election commission, Bezergen Garrayev, told AFP that Berdymukhamedov gave the commission “an instruction to prepare for early presidential elections on March 12”.

Later in the day state media said the tightly-controlled country’s rubberstamp parliament “adopted a resolution” to hold the vote on March 12.

The move comes after unprecedented violence roiled next-door Kazakhstan, leaving 200 dead. The crisis effectively ended the political career of Nursultan Nazarbayev, an 81-year-old strongman who had remained powerful even after allowing a hand-picked successor to replace him as president in 2019.

Gas-rich Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic, is one of the world’s most repressive, secretive states and little is known about how the regime makes day-to-day decisions.

Berdymukhamedov, who is the country’s president, chair of the cabinet and senate speaker, is its main face. 

His pastimes — including horse riding, mass cycling, composing songs and authoring books — have made him a curiosity across the world on social media, which is blocked in Turkmenistan.

His son Serdar Berdymukhamedov is now the second most powerful government official with a broad influence over the economy as vice-premier, and having turned 40 last year can now run for president.

-‘What is the rush?’ –

In the capital Ashgabat, some people told AFP they had not heard the news, while others expressed surprise at the timing.  

“What is the rush?” asked Takhir Abdullayev, a pensioner. 

“The president is not yet an old man. Giving young people the road is one thing. But you need somebody with experience in that post.”

Ruslan Myatiyev, Europe-based editor of the dissident-run Turkmen.News media outlet said there was no doubt that Berdymukhamedov’s reference to “young leaders” meant his son Serdar.

“Either (Berdymukhamedov) is ill, or he feels he cannot control the country with the current economic challenges and deepening poverty,” Myatiyev said of why it might be happening two years before Berdymukhamedov’s third term concludes.

“The second is less likely because the security bloc is very loyal to him.”

– ‘Difficult decision’ –

In a speech in parliament on Friday, Berdymukhamedov said he reached “a difficult decision” about his leadership because of his age, adding that the country needed “young leaders”, the state information service TDH reported.

But Berdymukhamedov said he wished to remain in politics in his role as chairman of parliament’s upper chamber.

The strongman’s speech to the chamber saw loyalists line up to praise the move. 

One of the delegates to the session, Gurbangeldy Ailiyev, said that he believed Berdymukhamedov “will be close to the young leaders… give advice, guide the country along the path to new heights of progress”.

Serdar Berdymukhamedov’s rapid emergence as a force in Turkmen politics has fuelled speculation over what could be the first hereditary succession in ex-Soviet Central Asia.

While presidential relatives in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are often viewed as wealthy and highly-powered, none have scaled the heights of Serdar Berdymukhamedov in such a short time. 

Last year Berdymukhamedov junior rose to the rank of vice premier in the cabinet headed by his father, gained a seat on the powerful security council and was appointed the nation’s auditor-general — a role that allows him to oversee government spending. 

Friday’s parliament session marked the anniversary of those promotions for Berdymukahmedov junior as well as the 15th anniversary of the first of three crushing electoral victories for his father as president, none of which were over genuine opponents.  

It also marked the beginning of a new government-proclaimed era for the next thirty years, christened “The Revival of the Powerful State”.

Previous periods christened by the country’s leadership have included “the Era of the Great Revival”, “the Happy Era of the Powerful State”, and, under Niyazov, “the Golden Age of the Turkmen”.

by Anton Lomov / with Christopher Rickleton in Almaty