By ALEXANDER VERSHININ, Associated Press
ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan (AP) — Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov won a new five-year term by capturing 97 percent of the vote, election officials said Monday, but a Western expert called the vote a democratic sham.
All of Berdymukhamedov's seven opponents praised his leadership in their campaigns, making the authoritarian leader's victory in Sunday's election a mere formality. Berdymukhamedov improved on his 2007 performance, in which he secured his first term in this Central Asian nation with 89 percent of the vote.
Central Election Commission chief Orazmyrat Niyazliyev called the vote democratic and said it contributed to national unity.
But Annette Bohr, an expert on Turkmenistan at the London-based Chatham House institute, said the election presented only the facade of a democratic process.
"It is the typical faux democracy that you see in so many countries," Bohr said.
Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic of 5 million that borders the Caspian Sea, is the subject of avid interest from the West, Russia and China for its natural gas reserves, which are estimated to be the fourth largest in the world.
Berdymukhamedov, a 54-year-old dentist, came to power after the 2006 death of his eccentric, iron-fisted predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, amid promises of opening up the country's tightly controlled political system.
The scale of his victory suggests real democratic reforms are still a remote prospect, however.
The only international observation mission overseeing the election was a delegation from the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States, which frequently offers positive assessments of votes criticized by more established monitoring bodies.
CIS executive secretary Sergei Lebedev, speaking Monday in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat, said the election complied with democratic norms. He said CIS monitors noted some minor irregularities but said they were unlikely to have any impact on the final result.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had said earlier that conditions were not suitable for a vote monitoring mission and Turkmenistan did not invite its observers.
Associated Press writer Peter Leonard in Almaty, Kazakhstan, contributed to this report.
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