PRAGUE — A second political party in Turkmenistan — which is still under an absolute dictatorship more than 20 years after achieving independence from the Soviet Union — will do nothing to bring democracy to the oil-rich Central Asian nation, political observers and analysts say.
Late last month, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov announced that the newly formed Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs will be allowed to compete with his ruling Democratic Party.
"The new party cannot help pave the way for democratic reforms," Nurmuhammed Hanamov, co-chairman of Turkmenistan's exiled Republican Party, said from Vienna, Austria. "[It] will not lead to a change in social conditions, and they will not criticize any policy of the government."
Mr. Hanamov noted that the new party is headed by Orazmammed Mammedov, a close friend of the president's, and said the political group likely will not offer real opposition.
Turkmenistan is one of the most closed and repressive regimes in the world, according Human Rights Watch.
Rachel Denber, deputy director of the rights group's Europe and Central Asia division, says the Turkmen government implements a policy of fear and harassment that ensures no room for political dissent.
"Over the last 20 years, we've seen the disappearance of real, independent and autonomous commentary, activism and human rights work," said Ms. Denber. "Political opposition — any kind of alternative voices — just gets squelched."
Mr. Berdymukhamedov, who calls himself the "Arkadag" ("Patron"), increasingly has talked about democratizing Turkmen society since coming to power after flamboyant dictator Saparmurat Niyazov died in 2006.
In the run-up to the 2006 election, he announced a legislative change that would allow new parties to form, but it was too late in the campaign for any new party to oppose him on the ballot.
This year, he received 97 percent of the vote in his re-election bid, ushering in the official "era of happiness of the stable state."
"In Berdymukhamedov's [second term], the quality of governance has deteriorated," says Luca Anceschi, author of "Turkmenistan's Foreign Policy: Positive Neutrality and the Consolidation of the Turkmen Regime." "The standards of living are also deteriorating. I wouldn't be surprised if in the next two or three years Turkmenistan had one of the worst Human Development Indexes in the world. Health, education — things are becoming really, really bad."
Analysts say that Mr. Berdymukhamedov's nod toward democracy most likely is aimed at improving his country's image abroad, with a hope of boosting foreign investment and trade opportunities.
"I think the audience the regime is addressing is mainly an international one," said Mr. Anceschi, who lectures at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. "The people inside know that nothing is going to change. But it seems that now Berdymukhamedov can go around especially in the West, and he will say, 'We are implementing some sort of multiparty system in Turkmenistan.' "
Domestically, the president's intentions are less clear. But analysts say that various privileges given to the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, which is forming the new political party, may point to a widening of Turkmenistan's elite.
Ranked ahead of only North Korea and Myanmar in Reporters Without Borders 2011 Press Freedom Index, Turkmenistan saw the establishment of its first private newspaper, Rysgal, in 2010. It is run by the union, which also controls the country's only private bank.
"What is interesting is that this is the party which is the political [wing] of the people who already own the first private bank and the first private magazine," Mr. Anceschi said. "It seems to me that you can see that elite is enlarging in a way in which you start to include the nonpolitical elite — in this case, the business elite — into the leading class in Turkmenistan."
Mr. Anceschi said that the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs would be in a position to ease pressure on Mr. Berdymukhamedov's Democratic Party by taking on some of the responsibilities involved in organizing elections and the theater of campaigning that goes with them.
"Even if you are really bad dictator, you can't do everything yourself," he said. "You need some kind of support."
• Jennifer Collins reported from Berlin.