Turkmenistan gets a second political party

Turkmenistan now has its second political party, ending the official monopoly of its Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. State media heralded the step as a “historic event” for the country.

But many critics and outsiders are dubious the new party will actually challenge the vast powers of President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov,who took office after his predecessor's death in 2006.

State media reported the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs had become possible after a new law allowed more parties to be formed. The fledgling party met Tuesday to approve its charter and choose top officials, the state news agency reported. It came into being after the recently reelected president had urged that new parties be formed “to democratize society.”

Ending its decades under a single political party is seen as one sign that Berdimukhamedov is seeking to ease Turkmenistan's international isolation and win foreign investment for the energy-rich state. The country became infamous for authoritarian rule under its last president, Saparmurat Niyazov, who declared himself president for life and made his writings mandatory reading in schools.

But the law allowing new political parties appears to cut out any existing opposition movements by requiring that they be located solely within Turkmenistan, according to the Agence France-Presse. One dissident group operating in exile, the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, reported that “a close friend of the Turkmen president … was assigned to establish the party.”

Simply having competitors has not guaranteed a vigorous political showdown in Turkmenistan in the past: Berdimukhamedov won reelection this year with 97% of the vote, besting opponents from his own party, several of whom reportedly encouraged people to vote for him.

Human rights groups say despite gestures toward more openness, abuses have continued under Berdimukhamedov, who “has maintained all the means and patterns of repression established by Niyazov,” according to the free speech organization Freedom House.

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Seven facts for Turkmenistan's 'Week of Health and Happiness'

Turkmenistan

The former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan is marking the “Week of Health and Happiness” with a march up a five-mile concrete staircase and plays such as “The Era of Power Is Illuminated by Happiness,” the Associated Press reports. Alcohol has been reportedly removed from the shelves.

Here are seven more facts you might not know about this isolated and repressive country,  one for each day of the Week of Health and Happiness:

1. Former President Saparmurad Niyazov, who made himself president for life, once told Turkmen youths to read his book, the Ruhnama, three times a day in order to go to heaven, Turkmen television reported. The rule of the Turkmenbashi -- Father of the Turkmens -– ended with his death in 2006.

2. Turkmenistan has only one political party, the Democratic Party. The current president, Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov, has asked his government to create some more parties, Reuters reports, but analysts are highly skeptical that new parties would have any real independence. Transparency International ranked Turkmenistan 177th among 183 countries in perceived corruption.

3. When Turkmenistan's national soccer team came in last in the Commonwealth of Independent States Cup, the only sports newspaper in Turkmenistan and its new 24-hour sports channel avoided reporting the embarrassing news, Eurasianet.org pointed out. Media are strictly controlled: The country is ranked 177th among  179 countries in press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders.

4. State-run media also delayed reporting on mysterious blasts last summer in the town of Abadan that were later said to have killed anywhere from 15 to 200 people. Media held off providing news on the explosions for 24 hours, according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. A government commission blamed hot weather for setting off unspecified explosive materials.

5. Berdimukhamedov was declared the winner of the Feb. 12 election with more than 97% of the vote and nearly 97% turnout of registered voters, according to Radio Free Europe. One person who didn’t vote said he was contacted by an official asking him to explain his absence.

6. Turkmenistan doesn’t allow Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International or other human rights groups to visit. It has also turned away the International Committee of the Red Cross and at least 10 United Nations initiatives, according to Human Rights Watch, which calls it "one of the world’s most repressive countries."

7. Turkmenistan reportedly ranks fourth in the world in natural gas reserves. The European Union has signed an interim trade agreement with the country, but a broader partnership agreement has been repeatedly stalled because of, well, some of the facts you just read about Turkmenistan. 

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Photo: Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov rides with a dove on his shoulder an a ceremony in the capital Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, on April 24, 2011. Credit: Alexander Vershinin / Associated Press


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