On March 28, 2021, for the first time in its independent history, Turkmenistan held elections for the 56-member upper chamber of the country’s parliament – the Halk Maslahaty (the People’s Council). The indirect elections saw 48 members elected by the country’s regional councils, plus Ashgabat city. The remaining eight members were selected directly by President Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov.
The elections would have garnered little attention if not for one fact: Berdymuhamedov was first declared an elected member of the chamber and roughly two weeks later, during the chamber’s first session, he was elected as the council’s chairman. The act blatantly violates articles 73 and 87 of the Turkmen Constitution, which prohibit the sitting president from being a member of either chamber of the parliament and restrict which bodies members of parliament can also be involved in. Some observers were quick to highlight that the move ushers in the final stage in a power transition scheme from Berdymuhamedov to his son Serdar, who has experienced rapid advancement in recent years.
The move also once again highlighted the inferior role the country’s assembly bodies have played throughout their existence, being subordinated to the whims of whoever occupies the presidency.
Other parliaments in Central Asia, to varying degrees, are also subdued by strong executives, but they still serve as bodies for bargaining between elites and patronage networks. They are a place for some form of political competition. The parliament in Turkmenistan has been devoid of even that limited function. This does not mean, however, that its existence has been completely meaningless. The institutional transformations of the domestic assembly bodies, specifically the Mejlis (the assembly, the lower parliament house) and the People’s Council, have been marked by several phases of status reshufflings and power redistribution between them, indicating the changing attitudes of the president toward their instrumental role for power consolidation.
During the presidency of Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s first president, the changes in power distribution between the country’s assembly bodies were directed by his urge to build an ultra-centralized power vertical. He performed constant cadre reshufflings and elite purges and marginalized other political institutions to create a sterilized political space to ensure that no group or political institution could consolidate into an independent power base strong enough to challenge his rule. The same reason motivated Niyazov to personally occupy major political posts in order to micromanage all political, economic, and social processes in the state.
The Mejlis was under his dominance as it was fully occupied by deputies from the only allowed political party at the time – the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT), which was under Niyazov’s leadership. Up until 2008, the DPT participated in parliamentary elections uncontested, then the state-controlled Galkynysh National Revival Movement (an umbrella organization for domestic GONGOs) was allowed to participate to imitate pluralism.
The People’s Council, officially being the “highest representative body of popular vote” and formally separate from the legislature, was also under Niyazov’s full dominance as he chaired the council, controlling its composition and functioning. Most of its members were officials and bureaucrats whom he directly appointed, while only a small fraction of members were popularly elected representatives, coming from each of the country’s districts.
The council’s decisions did not have direct juridical force, requiring further approval and elaboration by the Mejlis. Mejlis, however, did not hesitate to approve decisions that served Niyazov’s political interests, even when they openly violated the constitution. In 1993, for instance, the Mejlis approved the council’s decision to extend Niyazov’s presidential term for five years without elections, setting a precedent.
During Niyazov’s presidency the council underwent two notable institutional transformations, one in 1999 and the other in 2003, both having direct impact on the legislature. These reforms shifted the power balance in the council’s favor, marginalizing the Mejlis even further and reducing its competencies to the minimum. By 2003, the People’s Council became the supreme institution, placed above other branches of power. The reshuffling came as a result of an assassination attempt on Niyazov a year earlier, which independent observers believe to have been staged by Niyazov himself to eliminate political opponents. The “relocation” of powers to the institution he personally chaired was a logical move to gain a more leveraged position in case of a potential political crisis or stalemate and to suppress perceived dissent or intra-elite frictions. In addition, Niyazov being the “chairman for life” of such an omnipotent institution could have allowed him to theoretically install any puppet figure to the presidential post with no repercussions for his own influence, if he ever decided or was pressured to step down as president.
In sum, during Niyazov’s presidency the legislature was marginalized so as not to become autonomous with its own power base that could be used to challenge Niyazov’s rule. He did so by purposefully strengthening the People’s Council, which he had full control of. He continuously used the council to grant popular legitimacy to the acts that served his political interests but violated the constitution, such as extending his term or becoming a president for life in 1999. He also used the council’s sessions as mass orchestrated spectacles of self-glorification, aimed to demonstrate nationwide unconditional support for him, strengthening his personality cult and signaling to political opponents that any opposition to his rule would yield no tangible results.
The discrepancy between the formal powers that the legislature has and how it exercises them in practice passed into Berdymuhamedov’s presidency after Niyazov’s death in December 2006. It remains relevant to this day. Akin to his predecessor, Berdymuhamedov is not interested in endowing other governing institutions with real power to influence the decision-making process.
Similarly to his predecessor, Berdymuhamedov built an ultra-centralized power vertical; however, it is distinct in two major ways. Berdymuhamedov, unlike Niyazov, has an extensive family-based clan network, which allowed him to place personally loyal family members and relatives in important and lucrative posts. Secondly, Berdymuhamedov is keener than his predecessor in creating the appearance of political pluralism, which resulted in a number of cosmetic reforms in regard to representative institutions.
The first came in 2008 as part of constitution’s redrafting, which significantly changed the institutional landscape. The reform saw the abolishment of the unwieldy People’s Council, with its powers being delegated to the president and the Mejlis.
The People’s Council was then replaced with a much smaller and much easier to control Council of Elders. Formally, it differed from its predecessor in terms of composition, status, and functioning; at the same time, it resembled its predecessor in how it has been consistently used by the president to initiate policies that serve his interests. For instance, though it was ascribed only with advisory functions, its proposals would eventually and consistently become laws. This was quite useful public image-wise when Berdymuhamedov wanted to adopt changes that would extend his personal rule or when he faced the need to implement unpopular reforms amid the recent and still worsening economic crisis, such as scrapping the free provision of utilities to the general public. The fact that it was the Council of Elders proposing these changes was meant to demonstrate the popular demand for these reforms, even when they weren’t in popular demand.
The Mejlis saw its number of deputies increased to 125 and its powers expanded, including amending the constitution and impeaching the president. On paper it did look as if the role of the parliament was strengthened. In reality, however, it did so only formally; to this day, the role of the Mejlis is confined to being a rubberstamp assembly granting a veneer of popular legitimacy.
Berdymuhamedov exerts control over the parliament by having his stalwarts chair the chamber and populating it with “pocketed” parties. None of the parliamentary elections thus far has been regarded as genuinely free, fair, and competitive, regardless of the country’s shift to a multiparty system in 2013. Similarly to numerous other “reforms,” this one has been nothing but a window dressing to imitate adherence to international standards; new political parties, such as the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and the Agrarian Party, in reality do not have independent platforms and vow support to the president and his policies. They are, instead of genuine political parties, rather a means for the ruling regime to co-opt specific social groups, such as entrepreneurs. Furthermore, it became a common practice for Berdymuhamedov to suggest what committees the parliament should have and who should head them, in addition to instructing the chamber what laws it ought to approve and having the chairperson of the parliament participate in Cabinet of Ministers meetings as one of the “appointed” officials.
In the last five years, the Turkmen Constitution has been changed three times, indicating Berdymuhamedov’s energetic attempts to secure his lifetime rule and keep power in his family network. The latest two of these reforms saw the institutional landscape altered. In 2017, the People’s Council was revived through the transformation of the Council of Elders, only to exist in such a capacity for roughly three years. The final reshape occurred in 2020, when the same People’s Council was once again transformed, now into an upper chamber for the newly set-up bicameral legislature – the National Council.
Now as the chairman of the upper (and functionally more important) chamber of the parliament, Berdymuhamedov once again follows his predecessor’s footsteps, gaining full control over both the executive and legislative branches. It also indicates that just like his predecessor, Berdymuhamedov shares a pathological distrust of other institutions as there is much at stake. In Turkmenistan, where tribal regional affiliations are still a strong factor, Berdymuhamedov is the main guarantor of his extended family’s well-being and dominant position as his cadre policy of promoting members of own tribe at the expense of other groups likely disgruntles those locked out, particularly given the worsening economic situation. Hence, whatever the succession scenario is, it definitely entails him remaining in a strong authoritative position. The People’s Council is likely to play an important role in it as well; the one that will be described to the local public as yet another staging post along “the way of democratic reforms and large-scale transformations.”