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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Turkmenistan Sees Big Turnout

ReutersA voter at a collective farm near Ashgabat voting Sunday near a photograph of late President Saparmurat Niyazov.
ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan -- Nearly 100 percent of Turkmen voters cast ballots in Sunday's election to replace late President Saparmurat Niyazov in a tightly controlled election, election officials said.

It was the country's first presidential vote with more than one candidate, and the clear favorite -- acting Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov -- has hinted at reforms, raising hopes that the country will open up after two decades of isolation and suppression under Niyazov.

Turkmenistan is of substantial interest to Russia and the West because of its enormous natural gas reserves and its status as a stable, neutral country bordering Iran and Afghanistan.

Polls closed at 6 p.m. Preliminary results were expected Tuesday.

The state Turkmen Press news agency called the vote "a true national holiday" that demonstrated "Turkmens' civil maturity."

Berdymukhammedov and his five opponents, little-known officials, are all members of the country's only legal political party and were appointed by the People's Assembly, the highest legislative body, which is scheduled to meet Wednesday to endorse a winner.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe did not send an election-monitoring mission, nor did the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose grouping of former Soviet republics.

Goran Lennmarker, chairman of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, told reporters in the capital Ashgabat on Saturday that the vote was "a step ... in the development of your democracy."

"You've had a very strong leader. Now this is a new step in your development," he said.

Exiled opposition figures have not been able to return to Turkmenistan since Niyazov's Dec. 21 death, and many foreign journalists were denied visas to cover the election.

Shortly after midday Sunday, a group of locally accredited journalists who were being taken to polling stations were told to go home and wait for official statements.

Niyazov -- who fostered an extensive personality cult, calling himself Turkmenbashi, or Father of All Turkmen -- still dominates the country's psyche nearly two months after his death. At one polling station in Niyazov's hometown of Kipchak, his portrait was on all the walls, and copies of his poems and philosophical writings were on display.

First-time voters were being given copies of the "Rukhnama," a book of Niyazov's philosophical writings, which he made required reading in schools. Niyazov said the book would guarantee diligent readers a place in heaven.

Berdymukhammedov, by contrast, has kept a fairly low profile. He ceded his allotted television campaign time to the other candidates; state television has shown only brief remarks by him, and his photo is rarely displayed in state newspapers.

He also startled observers with a series of remarks indicating a significant move away from Niyazov's tight control. He promised unrestricted Internet access for all Turkmens, support for entrepreneurship, social reforms and a widening of educational opportunities.

Ganid Agayev, a retiree in Ashgabat, said he voted for Berdymukhammedov because of his statements about education.

"This has raised my spirits. I have grandchildren, and it's very important for me that they get a proper education," he said.

Amanjan Khojiyeva, another retiree, said she voted for Berdymukhammedov because he promised to raise pensions.

But Berdymukhammedov, who also holds the title of deputy prime minister, has not spoken of political reform. He promised the country would follow democracy -- as Niyazov defined it.