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Turkmen Leader Seeks Longer Term

The constitutional reforms recently announced in Turkmenistan appear geared toward strengthening the powers of the president rather than achieving a balance of power between executive, legislature and judiciary, NBCentralAsia analysts say.

The changes, which will come into effect in September 2008 assuming they are approved, were announced at a meeting of a constitutional committee which opened on May 22.

One important change is that the term in office of Turkmen presidents would be prolonged from five to seven years.

The Halk Maslahaty or People's Council, an elected bodies with about 2,500 members, will be downgraded from its present status above the Mejlis or parliament to that of merely consultative body.

Most of its powers will revert to the parliament, which will now have the right to change the constitution, pass laws of major significance, and veto international treaties. The number of Mejlis seats will rise from 65 to 125.

Analysts and human rights activists interviewed by NBCentral Asia doubt any of the changes will bring much real democracy to Turkmenistan.

One media-watcher from Dasoguz region in the north, for example, said President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov was tinkering with the constitution simply to prolong his time in office. In theory, his election last year gave him a five-year term and meant he would not be able to stand again.

"It's possible the reform was launched in order to change the rules," said the media-watcher.

Another observer, based in Ashgabat, believes Berdymuhammedov feels he is in the shadow of his predecessor Saparmurat Niazov and wants to bolster his position, initially by extending his time in power.

Niazov ran Turkmenistan from when it was still a Soviet republic in the Eighties until he died in December 2006.

The Halk Maslahaty accorded Niazov the status of "lifelong president" in 1998, and although the Turkmen constitution was never changed to reflect this, the authorities proceeded to ignore all thought of terms in office and stopped holding presidential elections.

Annadurdy Khadjiev, a Turkmen dissident based in Bulgaria, believes that when it comes to the other changes, the authorities are merely putting their house in order – giving parliament back the powers that Niazov handed over to the Halk Maslahaty, and effectively abolishing the latter.

Khadjiev said that on the executive side, things remain unchanged – the president forms the government, which answers to him alone, and he hires and fires regional governors and top judges. He actually gains more leverage over the prosecution service, whose head will now answer only to the president rather than to the Halk Maslahaty; this is one power the Mejlis does not inherit.

"How can anyone talk about democratisation of society and the division of powers, when all the power lies in the hands of one person, and parliament is merely used to pass the laws and amendments the head of state wants?" asked Khadjiev.

Vyacheslav Mamedov, head of the Democratic Civic Union of Turkmenistan based in the Netherlands, agrees that the constitutional changes announced so far amount to simplifying the system of government while keeping it firmly under the president's thumb, so talk of reform is far-fetched.

Tajigul Begmedova, head of the diaspora-based Turkmen Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, says there is no need to introduce a new constitution – the real problem is that officials blithely ignore the current one.

An Ashgabat-based lawyer made a similar point, adding, "The authorities clearly understand that the leadership's stated intentions are just for show and there are no substantive moves to change things. Everyone knows that in Turkmenistan, one man decides everything."

(NBCA is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service is resuming, covering only Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan for the moment.)

Source: IWPR