On February 11 in an extraordinary session of the upper house of Turkmenistan’s parliament, the Halk Maslahaty, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov called for early presidential elections to be held March 12. Three days later, Serdar Berdimuhamedov, the president’s son, stated his intention to run. The expected dynastic succession gambit is underway.
The February 11 special session was called for by the elder Berdimuhamedov, 64, last month in the wake of the unrest in neighboring Kazakhstan. The January violence in Kazakhstan was, at least in part, rooted in the country’s incomplete political transition from Nursultan Nazarbayev to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev; that may have prompted Berdimuhamedov to pull the trigger on what many observers have long believe were ambitions for a dynastic succession of power.
February 11 marked 15 years in power for Berdimuhamedov as well as the one-year anniversary of Serdar being made head of the Supreme Control Chamber, a member of the State Security Council, and a deputy prime minister. In addition, Serdar turned 40 this past September, the minimum age for the presidency in Turkmenistan.
The elder Berdimuhamedov has been president of Turkmenistan since 2007. He has never faced legitimate competition at the ballot box, with Turkmenistan’s political sphere heavily limited. Three political parties are officially registered and allowed to nominated candidates.
The Halk Maslahaty session was positioned as focusing on Turkmenistan’s next 30 years. In his remarks, Berdimuhamedov said he’d reached a difficult decision. He waxed poetic about the importance of opening the way for “young leaders.” The Turkmen president did not explicitly state he would step down, but the implication seems clear, especially in light of new reports from Reuters (citing Turkmen media) that Berdi the younger was nominated to run for president by the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan.
The Democratic Party is the party of Turkmenistan’s presidents, having been led by Saparmurat Niyazov from the end of the Soviet period until his late 2006 death and subsequently by Berdimuhamedov. Berdimuhamedov technically suspended his membership in 2013, though the party has nominated him in every election he has stood for (2007, 2012, and 2017).
Turkmenistan’s other two officially registered political parties are the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and the Agrarian Party.
In Freedom House’s 2021 Freedom in the World report, Turkmenistan came in with a score of 2 out of 100, raking up zero points for “political rights.” (Disclaimer: The author served as an advisor on the report). The media space is heavily circumscribed and independent political activity is all but nonexistent inside the country (the Turkmen diaspora, however, has been much more vocal in recent years, particularly as Ashgabat denied the existence of COVID-19 within the country’s borders).
Given the short time between the announcement of the election and election day, set for March 12, it is impossible to fathom an independent challenger standing against Serdar Berdimuhamedov, now that he’s been nominated by the president’s party.
All the same, this is a critical transition point for Turkmenistan. The elder Berdimuhamedov may desire a dynastic succession, but that doesn’t mean it will work as planned in the long run. Kazakhstan remains an illustrative example of how quickly the tides can turn against previously treasured and revered leaders and now a managed transition can go off the rails. A dynastic succession has not been attempted elsewhere in the region, though many believe Tajikistan’s Emomali Rahmon has this pathway in mind for his own son, Rustam. Familial connection may tie the younger Berdimuhamedov more firmly to his father’s legacy, but with that comes the family baggage too.