Turkmen Leader to Keep Lid on Democracy

Turkmen Leader to Keep Lid on Democracy

Tuesday, 14 April, 2009
The first session of Turkmenistan’s new parliament suggests that President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov plans to maintain tight control over the institution, note NBCentral Asia observers.

Members of parliament elected in the December polls gathered on January 9 for the launch of a new legislature which has 125 seats instead of the previous 65, under constitutional changes passed in September.

The old parliament or Mejlis, as constituted under the late president Saparmurat Niazov, had no real powers and was simply there to sign off on decisions by the head of state. Decision-making powers, albeit nominal, were vested in the Halk Maslahaty or People’s Council, a 2,500-member assembly which convened occasionally to rubber-stamp major decisions.

As part of the reforms he instituted after Niazov’s death in December 2006 and his own election the following February, Berdymuhammedov abolished the Halk Maslahaty in September last year, handing much of its authority over to a revised version of the Mejlis, which was duly elected in December in what the president termed “true evidence of Turkmenistan’s commitment to wide-ranging democratic reforms”.

During his time in office, Berdymuhammedov has announced the start of democratic reforms, changed the constitution, and created a system in which the legislature, executive and judiciary are supposed to be independent and equal branches of power.

These apparently major reforms to the political structure offered a glimmer of hope that the authorities might be serious about delivering on their promise of change. No one expected this to happen overnight, or that the new parliament would shake off the president’s grip, but there was an expectation among some NBCentralAsia observers that it would begin exercising a limited degree of independence.

“In the autumn, we were hoping the soon-to-be-elected Mejlis would not be a puppet parliament,” said one observer in the Lebap region of eastern Turkmenistan.

Such hopes faded following the December ballot, which local analysts say were carefully orchestrated and rigged.

The first session of parliament was similarly disappointing. Although the constitution gives members the right to nominate candidates for the post of Mejlis chairman, as well as to set up parliamentary committees, the Turkmen president took matters into his own hands, nominating the outgoing speaker for the job.

Akjy Nurberdyeva was duly elected, unanimously.

Berdymuhammedov went on to recommend that legislators set up five committees – for human rights and liberties, for science, education and culture, for economics and social policy, for international and inter-parliamentary relations, and for local government affairs. He also nominated a head for each committee.

“It’s nonsense,” said a representative of an international organisation in Ashgabat, who asked to remain anonymous. “All the branches of power are controlled by one person. What does Turkmenistan need a constitution for, then?”

An analyst in the Balkan region of western Turkmenistan said this was a “monstrous”” distortion of the principle of the separation of powers. Any hope of democracy had been destroyed, he said.

“President Berdymuhammedov displayed an autocratic intolerance of the opinions and initiatives of others, and to top it all, of the law,” he said.

Other analysts say it is unrealistic to expect the leadership to adhere to the constitution, since in Turkmenistan, the law has always existed only on paper.

“You need to understand this,” said a journalist working for a government publication. “Berdymuhammedov has to have confidence in the people who hold key positions, even in the legislature. So he nominates all the candidates himself.”

For example, he said, the speaker Nurberdyeva is an “excellent conduit” who is prepared to carry out Berdymuhammedov’s every order, even if this goes counter to her own principles.

He recalled that Nurberdyeva was first appointed acting speaker to replace Ovezgeldy Atayev, who was arrested soon after Niazov’s death, and she went on to back Berdymuhammedov to the hilt.

“The president’s actions make absolute sense,” concluded the journalist.

Other analysts say that given the flawed manner in which they were elected, there is little chance that the newly-elected members of parliament will prove effective or that they will attempt to exercise their powers.

“Members of parliament will exercise their new powers only with the president’s say-so,” said an observer from Dashoguz in northern Turkmenistan. “Should the Mejlis try to do anything on its own, this initiative will be crushed.”

Apart from the right to change the constitution and call elections, the Mejlis has powers to ratify and denounce international treaties, deal with issues relating to the state border and internal administrative divisions. At the president’s request, it can also appoint and dismiss the head of the Supreme Court, the prosecutor general, and the interior and justice ministers.

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)

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