Turkmenistan parliament polls close after controlled vote

Gas-rich Turkmenistan on Sunday held the first parliamentary polls since the ruling family tightened its iron grip on the Central Asian nation that does not tolerate political dissent or a free press.

Polling stations closed at 7 pm (1400 GMT), according to the electoral commission, with turnout estimated at 91.12 percent of the approximately 3.5 million voters.

The new president took power following a hereditary succession in March 2022, and the vote comes after the abolition of the legislature's upper house and the creation of a supreme body.

The 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. No election has been judged free or fair by Western poll observers.

President Serdar Berdymukhamedov and his father repeatedly stressed this election would be held according to democratic principles. But the opposition is not taking part and censorship is in force.

"We have to pursue the efforts of the Hero-Protector and our dear president," polling station returning officer Ogulgurban Ezimova told AFP in Ashgabat, referring to Berdymukhamedov senior and his son.

Eighteen-year-olds voting for the first time were given presents, flowers and "our dear protector's books... to remember this special day in their lives", said Ezimova.

Maia Ataeva had just received her gifts at the polling station.

"We students, we take these elections very seriously because as our dear president Serdar Berdymukhamedov said, they are a new stage in the democratisation of the country," she told AFP.

'People expected reforms'

But beyond the polling stations, where an AFP correspondent in the capital saw plenty of people voting, enthusiasm for the election appeared limited.

Information about any policies is hard to find, and only the biographies of the 258 candidates are listed in the "Turkmenistan Neutral", the successor newspaper to the communist party daily in Soviet times.

The candidates represent three parties and several groups of citizens.

Former dentist and health minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov came to power in 2006, succeeding the nation's founding president Saparmurat Niyazov after his death.

Berdymukhamedov established a strong cult of personality before handing the reins to his son Serdar last year after a token snap election. But he kept his position as chair of the upper house of parliament.

In January, Berdymukhamedov senior, aged 65, proposed abolishing the upper house -- created at his request in 2021 -- and set up after a unanimous vote "a supreme representative body of people's power", the Halk Maslahaty or "People's Council".

Also called Arkadag or "Protector", he was named head of the new body and observers say he remains the real power. A new city is being built in his honour.

The council's remit covers the main directions of Turkmenistan's domestic and foreign policy, overshadowing the unicameral national assembly and its 125 members.

With the economy dependent on gas exports to Beijing and to a lesser extent Moscow, the new president has in recent months met China's Xi Jinping and Russia's Vladmir Putin.

But Turkmenistan remains one of the world's most closed-off countries, and according to Reporters Without Borders ranks 177th out of 180 countries for press freedom, ahead of Iran, Eritrea and North Korea.

Officially the nation recorded not a single case of Covid-19.

"I watched the inauguration of the president, a lot of people were expecting major reforms from the new president," said entrepreneur Maksat Redjenov.

"We expected new factories to be built, the country to open up, the arrival of tourists, that state control would ease," he told AFP.

Achir Ovezov, who works at Ashgabat's market, said he would not be voting.

"I have to work day and night to feed my family and I don't know the candidate," he said.