The Central Asian state of Turkmenistan, described by rights groups as one of the world's most repressive, proclaimed its first multi-party elections on Sunday; but both parties vowed loyalty to its leader and opponents remained in exile.
The face of President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who has assumed title of Arkadag (The Patron) as part of a rising personality cult, looked down from large portraits as voters arrived at polling stations to be greeted by grey-bearded elders in national dress. Books written by him were on display.
Berdymukhamedov's critics say pledges of democracy are designed for a critical West, whose companies are eager to develop Turkmenistan's natural gas reserves, the world's fourth-largest. Berdymukhamedov himself eyes new gas export routes to ease dependence on former imperial master Russia.
So far, the world's biggest energy consumer China has supplanted Moscow as the main importer of Turkmen natural gas via a pipeline launched in 2009.
National music blared from loudspeakers outside polling stations in the marble-clad capital city of Ashgabat, where in keeping with Soviet-era traditions buffets groaned with food and gleeful folk dancers performed.
"I supported the candidate who I know promotes the ideas of our president," said Shaberdy Dikiyev, a 26-year-old textile factory worker who cast his ballot at polling station No. 12 in the old part of Ashgabat.
Both candidates vying at this station in the "alternative vote" represented the ruling Democratic Party.
Berdymukhamedov, 56, stepped down in August as head of the Democratic Party, successor to the Soviet Communist Party. He ordered creation of the loyal Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs last year.
These two parties, along with members of state-sponsored trade unions, a women's union and a youth organisation, sought seats in the 125-member legislature, which formally approves any decision made by Berdymukhamedov.
Rising gas sales have fuelled double-digit economic growth, allowing Berdymukhamedov to supplement modest incomes of most of his countrymen with free electricity, gas, water, and with cheap bread and petrol – all introduced under Niyazov.
All media are rigidly controlled by the state.
The opposition, which includes several former government officials and a central banker, is still exiled, living in Europe after criminal cases, mainly built on corruption charges, were brought against them under Niyazov.
Some outspoken opponents have either disappeared or are in jail, human rights bodies say.
The election is marked by an "atmosphere of total repression", while torture is widely used in Turkmen prisons to elicit confessions and secure confessions, London-based Amnesty International said in a statement before Sunday's vote.
"We believe this election, in which the new party is running, will contribute to boosting living standards in line with a task set by the president," said teacher Jumamukhammed Annamukhamedov, commission head of polling station No. 51.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which had never observed a Turkmen election, sent a 15-member team to the country by invitation of the government. It will publish its recommendations for the government in February.
Sunday's vote is set to be "another pro-forma event that should prompt the international community to renew calls for true, comprehensive political reforms in Turkmenistan", said Brussels-based International Partnership for Human Rights and Vienna-registered Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights.
None of the 238 candidates ran on an independent line in the vote.
Coming to power in 2007 shortly after the death of his authoritarian predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov, whose cult of personality ran to naming a month after himself, Berdymukhamedov promised democratic changes including a role in politics for opponents. (Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Ralph Boulton)
By Marat Gurt