Political Reform, but Little Transparency

The authorities in Turkmenistan are planning a major overhaul of political institutions which would leave the country with one parliament instead of the two it effectively has at the moment.

While no one expects the reforms to transform Turkmenistan into a democracy, they should at least make for a more straightforward way of governing the country. They are important symbolically too, as the key change entails the demolition of a cornerstone of the late president Saparmurat Niazov's system of government.

However, commentators in Turkmenistan note that the authorities have followed past practice by failing to consult with people and engage them in the process, despite claims by officials that they have received supportive letters from members of the public.

Turkmenistan has a standing parliament, the Mejlis, with elected members and some legislative powers. But above it sits another body, a sort of grand assembly called the Halk Maslahaty or People's Council, tasked with approving all important legislation and constitutional matters, and with powers to dismiss the Mejlis.

This amorphous institution was central to the late President Saparmurat Niazov's rule. A couple of times a year its members – all 2,500 of them – would gather in the capital Ashgabat to applaud the president's achievements and rubber-stamp his policies. As it was more of a conference than an institution, it did not have the capacity to formulate laws or policies even if such a thing had been allowed.

Niazov's successor Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov believes this supra-parliament is redundant. He said as much in a speech he gave on May 22, at the opening of a session of a commission convened to discuss a substantial overhaul of the constitution.

The Halk Maslahaty was "no longer so vitally necessary", the president said, adding that its "cumbersome membership and complicated structure" were not conducive to good law-making.

"Civilised states generally have only one legislative body, in the shape of a parliament," he said.

Berdymuhammedov proposed relegating the institution to role of a merely consultative body for discussing issues of the day making recommendations on them.

Most of its powers would revert to the Mejlis, which he said should be beefed up with more seats and numerous powers of oversight and lawmaking including – in theory at least – the right to veto international treaties that he had signed off on as president.

It is a rapid process – the constitutional committee was set up only a month ago, and the plan is get the reforms through the Mejlis by July and passed by the Halk Maslahaty itself in September. Given the subservient nature of Turkmen politics, the Halk Maslahaty is likely to sign its own death warrant without a murmur.

After the president's speech, other speakers at the constitutional meeting elaborated on the proposals he had outlined.

Although this reform – like all policy-making in Turkmenistan – is clearly top-down in inspiration, an attempt was made to accord it some kind of legitimacy by suggesting massive public support, in the shape of letters received by parliament.

Mejlis speaker Akja Nurberdyeva said there had been "hundreds of suggestions" sent in by individuals and institutions.

Almost as a throwaway, she said one of these proposals was that the president's term in office should be extended for five to seven years. Like other matters discussed at the meeting – downgrading of the Halk Maslahaty and changes to parliament and local elected bodies – this is likely to sail through unopposed.

NBCentralAsia commentators say that in reality, there has been little involvement of the wider public in this reform, and prior to Berdymuhammedov's speech, few people had much idea what it entailed.

One observer in the Balkan region in the west of the country said the changes had been designed behind closed doors with no attempt to seek national support.

"Specific amendments to the constitution are not being discussed, and no proposals are being made to make it more democratic, either in the press and on television, or at workforce and local community meetings," he said.

A local journalist said the long tradition of keeping decision-making process well away from public view left many people disengaged and alienated.

"The distorted hierarchy of power that now exists, with no non-government organisations or independent media to serve as counterbalances, is a dead weight pressing on ordinary citizens," he said. "It stopped them long ago from making even a timid attempt to articulate their own views and proposals in public."

(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: Institute for War & Peace Reporting

Source: IWPR