Days after the passing of one of Central Asia’s autocrats-for-life, it appears the region is set to confirm another ruler who will last far beyond his original term limit. On Wednesday, a series of amendments to Turkmenistan’s constitution effectively allowed President Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov — set to face reelection next year — to extend his reign indefinitely. The amendments lifted the age cap (previously set at 70 years old) on presidential rule while simultaneously extending term limits from five to seven years. As Reuters reported, “The age limit was the only legal barrier that would have eventually prevented the 59-year-old authoritarian ruler from running and winning one vote after another.”
The status of Berdymuhamedov’s rule, of course, was never in any real question. While the president has thus far avoided the absurd heights of his predecessor’s cult of personality — Berdymuhamedov has refrained from renaming certain months after his self-penned holy book, for instance — he’s never made more than perfunctory moves toward allowing some form of democratization within Turkmenistan. As such, and in a nod to most of his fellow Central Asian peers, the extension of Berdymuhamedov’s rule is perhaps the least surprising development in the region since May, when Tajikistan’s electorate nominally voted to allow President Emomali Rahmon to stand for an unlimited number of terms.
If anything, though, the timing of Turkmenistan’s moves are a bit curious. Not only do they come during the same month that Uzbekistan saw its lone post-independence leader pass, but also alongside a series of high-level shuffles in Kazakhstan, offering a bit more credence to the notion that Karimov’s sudden death may have rattled neighboring autocrats. Likewise, the moves — just as those in Tajikistan a few months ago — come amidst the most substantial economic slowdown the region has known since 2008. Not only has Turkmenistan recently seen its final gas-export link with China delayed — effectively scotching Ashgabat’s designs on a massive export upswing — but the TAPI pipeline seems no closer to completion, despite official pronouncements otherwise. The move also comes after months of cabinet-level reassignments, with Ashgabat cycling through scapegoats for its recent travails.
It’s also worth noting that alongside the move to confirm Berdymuhamedov’s leader-for-life status, certain speakers within Turkmenistan’s council of elders also asked the president to begin unwinding the country’s welfare system, which has subsidized both electricity and gas. Berdymuhamedov, per Reuters, “ordered his government to look into the matter.” A move to stanch Turkmenistan’s welfare system, should it come to pass, will presumably end up as a more surprising development than the push to extend Berdymuhamedov’s rule, but may well present a greater challenge to his rule than anything the president has yet seen.