Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

Turkmenistan Will Get a New President on March 12. Will It Matter?

Will a change in president mean a change in leadership? And even if so, can that change in leadership measurably affect the challenges Turkmenistan faces?

Turkmenistan Will Get a New President on March 12. Will It Matter?
Credit: Pixabay

Turkmenistan’s presidential election is only a few days away. Early voting has already begun. If you happen to look at the Wikipedia page for the election (here) you’ll see nine candidates listed, but only one has a picture available: Serdar Berdimuhamedov, the son of current Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. 

If other Central Asian elections have lacked competition, Turkmenistan’s polls take that to an extreme. According to RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, the websites for the Agrarian Party and the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs — both of which have nominated candidates for the election — have not a word about their candidates or their campaigns. 

News reports always hedge in how they discuss the election, noting the lack of competition and the expectation that Serdar will win but usually shying from direct pronouncements. I do it, too. But no one seriously expects anyone except Serdar to become the next Turkmen president. That said, we don’t know quite what that will mean.

Little is known about the younger Berdimuhamedov, as RFE/RL’s Farangis Najibullah writes in a recent article. His political trajectory has been carefully charted by his father, beginning with a seat in parliament in 2016 when he was already head of the information department at the foreign ministry. In March 2018 he became deputy foreign minister and six months later he was appointed deputy governor of Ahal Province. A year later he was appointed industry minister and in 2020 he was made a deputy chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers (also referred to as deputy prime minister). Given that Turkmenistan has no prime minister and the president is chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers, the younger Berdimuhamedov’s appointments in 2020 made him arguably the second-most powerful figure in the country. 

This resume tells us virtually nothing about Serdar save that he is the son of an autocrat with dynastic ambitions. Najibullah’s reporting, based on exile Turkmen media, sheds some light on rumors about Serdar’s personality, but there’s not much to judge from.

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Eurasianet’s Akhal-Teke Turkmenistan Bulletin assessed Serdar’s campaign pledges and concluded: “… Berdymukhamedov junior’s delusions and rhetoric are so unerringly similar to those of his father that it is difficult to describe what is occurring as a transition in any real sense.”

In 2020, Turkmen legislation made the parliament bicameral and in 2021 a Senate election granted President Berdimuhamedov a seat in the new upper chamber. It seems he will retain that seat while allowing his son to assume the presidency. What’s less clear is how the political dynamics will work between the two Berdimuhamedovs. Family businesses are always a risk.

Turkmenistan’s March 12 presidential election may fly way under the radar of international news. There’s not much to say about it, after all. But that in of itself is part of the story. Will a change in president mean a change in leadership? And even if so, can that change in leadership measurably affect the challenges Turkmenistan faces? Or will an attempt to manage a dynastic transition touch off the sort of political firestorm autocrats everywhere fear?

Turkmenistan often sits beside North Korea in various international rankings. While North Korea has successfully transferred power through three generations, each new Kim has politically followed in the footsteps of his father — whatever changes we can observe have been evolutions, not revolutions. This does not provide much hope for change in Turkmenistan coming from another Berdimuhamedov regime.

It’s also worth noting that in North Korea, death was always the trigger for a leadership transition. Kim Jong Un, for example, did not have to rule with his father looking over his shoulder or pulling the strings from backstage. We don’t know enough about the Berdimuhamedov family dynamics to quite know whether and how father and son might work together. The possible bifurcation of power between the elder and the younger Berdimuhamedovs may invariably introduce the kind of instability the early election is designed to pre-empt in the first place.