Turkmenistan's interim leader was crowned Tuesday as heir apparent to the long-ruling dictator Saparmurat Niyazov after less than a week in power as the country's main legislative body rewrote the constitution to allow him to succeed the presidency.
Backing acting President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov's candidacy in Feb. 11 elections, the country's election chief, Murad Kariyev, said he will "do everything to make him president, because he is a worthy successor."
The move dampened hopes by the exiled opposition and international community that Niyazov's death after a 21-year unchallenged rule would open up the isolated gas-rich Central Asian nation whose stability is of interest to both the West and Russia.
Niyazov, who died last week, had ruled the desert ex-Soviet republic of 5 million north of Iran and Afghanistan with an iron grip. He had cultivated an all-encompassing personality cult around himself, ordering citizens to call him Turkmenbashi, or The Father of All Turkmen.
"We'll keep alive the legacy of Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great," Berdymukhamedov said Tuesday after the People's Council unanimously approved him as a presidential candidate.
The council picked five other little-known candidates — a deputy energy minister, two town mayors, one deputy regional governor and one district head — apparently in a bid to create an appearance of a pluralistic election.
‘We will not deviate from laws set by our great leader’
The council, made up of 2,500 lawmakers who were either elected or appointed, selected candidates out of nominees proposed by representatives of the country's five regions and the capital, Ashgabat.
Berdymukhamedov's candidacy was nominated by Ondzhik Musayev, the leader of the country's only political party, the Democratic Party.
Election chief Kariyev said that "we could elect Gurbanguli Myalikgulyevich as president right now, but we will not deviate from laws set by our great leader."
Kariyev also said that the election will be fair and open to foreign observers. He also said that transparent ballot boxes would be used in the vote.
Berdymukhamedov pledged to preserve the country's "stability and peace" and "our ancient democratic traditions" that he said were revived by Niyazov.
He also urged Turkmen to vote in the February election "to guarantee our future prosperity and demonstrate our unity."
Exiled opposition leaders have failed to return
Berdymukhamedov, who was a deputy prime minister under Niyazov, unexpectedly rose to acting president, after Parliament Speaker Ovezgeldy Atayev, who under the constitution was to fill in as interim leader, was charged with criminal offenses.
Under the existing constitution, the acting president was not allowed to run for the full office — but the People's Council changed the constitution to clear Berdymukhamedov's candidacy.
Opposition leaders who had been exiled by Niyazov have said they intend to return to Turkmenistan following his death, but have not succeeded.
Former Foreign Minister Avdy Kuliyev, now living in Norway, told The Associated Press that Berdymukhamedov had long been groomed by Niyazov as a successor. "Niyazov protected him, didn't touch him," Kuliyev said.
He said that Berdymukhamedov's election win was certain and that his rise to power "indicates that the old regime is going to stay in place."