Domestic politics

Niyazov appointed all ministers, provincial governors, judges, and the general prosecutor. He headed the cabinet of ministers, the Council of Defense and National Security and the Council of Elders. He entrusted leadership of the DPT to Onzhik Musayev, former director of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism.

Parliament

Parliament was reduced from 125 to 65 deputies, four-fifths of whom were members of the president’s party, the DPT. Niyazov had the power to disband parliament if it expressed lack of confidence in the cabinet. Moreover, the supreme representative body was not parliament but the People's Council, a very large super-parliament headed by the president.

A constitution was adopted in 1992 and amended in 1995, 1999, and 2003. There is no constitutional court.

In 2008 a new constitution was adopted. The number of members serving in Parliament was increased again to 125, and the People’s Council was abolished.

Censorship and control

There is no freedom of expression in Turkmenistan. Although freedom of speech and the press are guaranteed in the constitution, all media are subject to strict state censorship and control. There were a few independent periodicals in the early post-independence period, but by 1994 all had been closed down. Newspapers are filled mainly with official announcements and advertising.

Human rights

In 2003, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution expressing concern over the human rights situation in Turkmenistan.

The International Crisis Group warned in 2004 that deteriorating conditions in Turkmenistan constituted an “unfolding catastrophe,” and that Niyazov’s destruction of state and civil society institutions had increased.

The High Commissioner on National Minorities paid a brief visit to Turkmenistan in 2003 and again in 2004 to observe the situation of minorities in the country.

In 2006, Turkmenistan received international condemnation when it became known that Ogulsapar Muradova, a journalist imprisoned in August on dubious grounds, had died under mysterious circumstances. The European Parliament also voted against a trade agreement with Turkmenistan in 2006 because of human rights concerns.

No organized internal political opposition

There have been some sporadic spontaneous protests. In 1995, a thousand people marched in Ashgabat to complain about bread shortages, water, and electricity. There were two similar demonstrations in 2002.

There is no apparent organized political opposition inside the country. The four major opposition groups that operate abroad united in 2003 to form the Union of Democratic Forces of Turkmenistan. The leaders of the opposition in exile include several former government officials. Niyazov accused them of masterminding an alleged coup. Numerous arrests followed.

In 2006, claiming to have foiled a coup plot, Niyazov had several journalists and opposition activists arrested.

Niyazov dies

President-for-Life Niyazov died suddenly in 2006. He had held all key government posts and left no designated heir. Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was named acting head of state, with the constitution quickly amended to allow him to run for president. New elections were scheduled. Top officials and state media expressed a clear preference for Berdymukhamedov.

2007 presidential election
President of Turkmenistan,

President of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov(Embassy of Turkmenistan in Washington website)

Berdymukhamedov was elected president in the 2007 elections, reportedly garnering 89.23% of the vote. Authorities claimed that 98% of registered voters cast their ballots. 

OSCE’s ODIHR sent a needs assessment mission to Turkmenistan prior to the election, followed by an election support team. This team reported that while the new presidential election law met some OSCE commitments, there was room for substantial improvement in the right of citizens to stand as candidates and the candidate’s rights in general. Despite the fact that the election support team had no formal observation or monitoring role, and did not issue a report, the visit was seen as the first step in a dialogue with Turkmen authorities on election issues. A delegation from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly was also present during the election.

Continuity and measured change

Berdymukhamedov followed up his campaign promises with agricultural, education and health reforms. There has been little sign, however, of political reform. Society remains tightly monitored and controlled.

Two government-sponsored internet cafes have been opened in Ashgabat, but at rates few Turkmen can afford. Although, it is possible to have internet at home, the connection is often extremely slow and service unreliable.

Berdymukhamedov acted more decisively in making governmental personnel changes to strengthen his position. Less than two months after taking office, he fired Minister of Interior Akrammed Rakhmanov, blaming him for the corruption and failures of the police. He also removed the powerful head of the presidential security service, Akmurad Rejepov, from office.

Niyazov's ban on opera and circus entertainment was ended. Plans were announced in to reopen the opera house and circus, build a cinema and add books to libraries.

In 2008, government officials reiterated their commitments to education reform and announced a major increase in the budget for schools and universities.

New 2008 Constitution

A new constitution increased presidential powers as well as formally those of parliament. The president can name regional governors and mayors, as well as appoint the electoral commission. Parliament can amend the constitution, censure the president and increase its size. The increased powers of both the president and parliament are due to the distribution of the former powers given to the People’s Council.

2012 presidential election

A 2011 law stated that presidential candidates must be backed either by a political party or collect at least 50,000 signatures to qualify. The law attempts to put a more democratic façade on a very authoritarian political process.

Berdymukhamedov easily won the February presidential election with a reported 97.14% of the vote and 96.7% voter turnout. Turkmenistan did not invite OSCE/ODIHR to observe the election. The December 2011 ODIHR Needs Assessment Mission concluded that Turkmenistan continued to limit fundamental freedoms, failed to allow genuine political competition, and had not progressed in developing a legal framework in line with OSCE commitments for democratic elections.

Parliamentary elections in 2013

Since 2010, the OSCE Center in Ashgabat has supported the visits of Turkmen officials to other OSCE participating states (such as Norway and France) to observe the organization and conduct of democratic elections.

The December 13, 2013 parliamentary elections were the first formally multi-party elections in Turkmenistan's history, although neither of the two parties running opposed President Berdymukhamedov.   The Democratic Party emerged as the largest faction in the Majlis with 47 of its125 seats, but lost its parliamentary monopoly for the first time since independence.  The other winners were the Organization of Trade Unions with 33 seats, the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs with 14 seats, the Women's Union of Turkmenistan wih 16 seats, the Magtymguly Youth Organization with 8 seats; and citizens groups with 7 seats.  Voter turnout was a reported 91.33%.

Mr..Shalva Tskhakaya explains the roles of domestic observers during elections (UNDP in Turkmenistan)

Mr..Shalva Tskhakaya explains the roles of domestic observers during elections (UNDP in Turkmenistan)

There were about 2,500 accredited national election observers, who appeared to the OSCE/ODIHR Election Assessment Mission to be more representatives of political parties and public associations that nominated candidates to run for the elections and de facto party agents rather than independent citizen observers.  Some observer organizations provided training to national observers, including UNDP which held a workshop for 20 participants.

The Turkmenistan Central Election Commission acredited 91 international observers for the elections: 68 from the CIS, 17 from OSCE/ODIHR, and 6 from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.

CIS Executive Secretary Sergei Lebedev, who led the CIS observers, stated at a December 16 press conference that the elections met generally accepted democratic norms, and were open, transparent and ensured the free expression of citizens.

The OSCE/ODIHR Election Assessment Mission's final report noted that the elections took place in a strictly controlled political environment characterized by a lack of respect for fundamental freedoms central to democratic elections. While participation of a second political party gave the appearance of political variety, it did not provide voters with a genuine choice between political alternatives. The campaign was muted and barely visible.  The absence of political pluralism and insufficient separation of powers between different branches of government, as well as lack of respect for fundamental freedoms, contributed to elections that need to be significantly improved to live upto OSCE commitments and other international obligations for genuine and democratic elections.

OSCE/ODIHR had not previously observed or assessed elections in Turkmenistan.  It deployed an election assessment mission this time rather than a full observation mission due to the lack of choice in the elections and the absence of a functioning opposition.  An OSCE/ODIHR team made a follow-up visit to Ashgabat in May 2014 to discuss the recommendations in its report on the December 2013 elections.