ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan (AP) — Voters in Turkmenistan headed to the polls Sunday in a presidential election designed to cement the incumbent's hold on power in the authoritarian Central Asian nation.
The seven candidates running against President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov have all made praise for his leadership a central plank of their campaigns.
Berdymukhamedov, a 54-year-old trained dentist, was elected to his first term with 89 percent of the vote in 2007, weeks after the sudden death of his eccentric, iron-fisted predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.
He came to power in the energy-rich former Soviet nation amid hopes of a gradual loosening of the closed political system, but those expectations have largely been dashed.
While the field of contenders is nominally broad, none of Berdymukhamedov's opponents — all of them government officials — have explicitly asked Turkmens to vote for them and have instead praised the president's accomplishments.
Water Resources Minister Annageldi Yazmyradov's manifesto was typical.
"In this era of great achievements, the Turkmen people, every single citizen of our country, fully endorses all the transformations taking place," reads one line.
Candidates have addressed rallies in packed halls across the country against a backdrop of large posters of Berdymukhamedov.
The only person participating in anything that could pass for genuine campaigning has been the president himself. Berdymukhamedov has been crisscrossing the country of 5 million people unveiling major building projects, which include the construction of multiple wedding halls, known as Palaces of Happiness, bazaars, five-star hotels and major roads in every provincial center in Turkmenistan.
Local reporters were taken on an official trip Sunday to visit polling stations across the capital, Ashgabat, but government minders prevented them from speaking with voters.
Berdymukhamedov has eschewed the personality cult that defined the rule of his predecessor, Niyazov, whose gold-leaf statues littered the country and who was known officially as Turkmenbashi — the Father of All Turkmens.
In a sign of Berdymukhamedov's secure stature, state media have increasingly taken to referring to him as Arkadag — Turkmen for "protector."
At one polling station at a bread factory, girls in traditional dress danced in a mild snowfall as speakers blared out a song hailing the Arkadag.
The only element of suspense in the election is whether Berdymukhamedov will garner more or less support from the country's 3 million voters than he managed in 2007.
Turnouts are traditionally very high in Turkmenistan, as in many former Soviet nations, where voters have been eager to avoid attracting unwanted official attention by snubbing the electoral process.
On Sunday, however, the number of voters was noticeably lower than in 2007. By 2 p.m., voter turnout stood at 68 percent — significantly less than the 85 percent at the same time in the last election.