(www.latwp.com) вЂ" Six presidential candidates are barnstorming the country and holding public meetings to talk about improving education, reforming health care, ensuring adequate pensions and boosting agriculture.
Acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, 49, will almost certainly win when the Central Asian country's citizens go to the polls Feb. 11. His opponents, a deputy minister and four regional officials, are willing foils, according to analysts and exiled politicians, reports Trend.
Murad Karyev, the supposedly neutral chairman of the Central Election Commission, has already said Berdymukhammedov is the best man for the job.
But the fact that there is a modicum of debate in a country that during its 15-plus years of independence lived under the megalomaniacal shadow of president-for-life Saparmurad Niyazov amounts to a slight thaw. For the first time, the country will hold a presidential election in which more than one candidate is running.
Each of the six candidates continues to pledge loyalty to the legacy of Niyazov. But their stump speeches contain some implicit criticism of the late president by acknowledging the need to reverse the erosion of social programs, in particular.
``We know who the winner is already,'' said Murad Esenov, director of the Institute for Central Asian and Caucasian Studies in Sweden. ``However, there are other candidates, and the fact that they have the possibility to speak up is significant and good. I believe there will be certain changes, because everyone realizes they cannot live as they lived before.''
The exiled opposition has been prevented from returning to take part in the election. A coalition of exile organizations chose Khudaiberdy Orazov, a former vice premier and head of the Central Bank, to run as their candidate, but he's sitting out the campaign
``They are trying to create an image of real elections, but of course these are not elections. It's some sort of clownery,'' said Orazov, who lives in Sweden. ``I believe we are entering the second stage of dictatorship.''
Agents from Turkmenistan's internal security service, the MNB, are shadowing five of the candidates to ensure they don't stray from their scripts and say things contrary to policies laid out by the leading candidate, according to the Eurasian Transition Group, a
nongovernmental organization in Germany that is one of the few with a presence in Turkmenistan.
``The other five candidates have to attend security council meetings, where they receive their orders,'' said Michael Laubsch, executive director of the German group. ``Everything is concentrated on Berdymukhammedov, and the MNB have total control over the other candidates.''
For the outside world, the direction Turkmenistan takes will carry profound implications for energy security. The former Soviet republic is becoming the focus of competition among Russia, China and the West as they vie for its natural gas resources.
Most of Turkmenistan's gas is now exported through Russian pipelines. The supply could become vital to the ability of Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, to meet rising demand over the next decade.
But Western governments would like to see construction of new export routes that bypass Russia and diversify the supply chain, something Niyazov had resisted.
China has already secured a deal to build a new pipeline that will deliver billions of cubic yards of natural gas annually over 30 years, beginning in 2009.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has embraced Berdymukhammedov. At a news conference Thursday, Putin mused favorably on the idea of an OPEC-like organization for natural gas, although he stressed, ``We are not going to set up a cartel.''
The United States and the European Union have stepped up contacts with Turkmenistan's new leadership. The opposition-in-exile has expressed frustration at what it sees as muted statements from those countries about the need for real democratic change.