PRAGUE — Turkmenistan's president is running for re-election Sunday against candidates only from his own party, a contest that voters say provides them no choice.
"I think the president will clearly win … regardless whether there is a choice of candidates or not," said a journalist in the capital, Ashgabat, who asked not to be named out of fear for his safety.
"He will come out as the winner in any case. That's why many simply aren't interested in this election."
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov won 89.5 percent of the vote in 2007 in an election that observers for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) described as neither free nor fair.
This time, the OSCE decided against deploying an election observation mission to Turkmenistan, saying the Central Asian country's lack of basic freedoms, political choice and democratic framework would render the exercise pointless.
Observers say increased media coverage of rival candidates and official orders to remove some of Mr. Berdymukhamedov's posters from public places where they were deemed to overwhelm other candidates' campaigns are shams to give the appearance of choice.
"There is no difference from the last presidential elections," said Nurmuhammed Hanamov, co-chairman of the exiled opposition Republican Party, speaking from Vienna. "Berdymukhamedov is probably going to get nearly 90 percent of the vote again. This is a scripted spectacle designed for public effect. Everybody knows that it's a trick."
Mr. Berdymukhamedov, 54, came to power after the death of his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov. in 2006.
Following Mr. Niyazov's 16-year dictatorship, Mr. Berdymukhamedov was eager to cast himself as a reformer. In 2008, he introduced a new constitution that was supposed to pave the way for multiparty democracy.
Yet Turkmenistan remains a one-party state counted among the world's worst violators of human rights, scoring high on Freedom House's "Worst of the Worst 2011: The World's Most Repressive Societies."
On the Economist Intelligence Unit's global Democracy Index, 2011 Turkmenistan ranks near the bottom of the list, along with Chad and North Korea.
Under the new constitution, potential presidential candidates can set up initiative groups to back their nomination instead of having to be selected by the government to run a campaign.
But of the 15 candidates endorsed by initiative groups for Sunday's election, only eight will appear on the ballots.
What's more, the candidates' proposed policies such as the diversification of gas export routes are in line with those of Mr. Berdymukhamedov.
"I wondered why there are not simply one or two candidates running against the president when it is clear that he will win," said a student in Ashgabat who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I came to the conclusion that the more candidates there are, ironically, the less of a real alternative or choice for the people would emerge."
The constitution removed legal barriers to creating new political parties, but legislation implementing the right to form parties was not passed until January, too late for any new groups to participate in the election.