Turkmenistan to allow opposition

ASHGABAT: Turkmenistan is set to allow the creation of a second political party this year, breaking up the one-party system that has been in place since the Central Asian nation gained independence, state media reported Friday.

The only political force registered in the ex-Soviet nation is the pro-government Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, which is closely modeled on the Communist Party.

"If anyone wishes to propose creating a new political party, we can register one this year, as stipulated by the Constitution," President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov said at a government meeting Thursday. The constitution that was adopted in 1992 allows for the formation of political parties.

It was not immediately clear to what extent the new party could diverge from the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. It's a common practice in former Soviet Central Asia to create nominal opposition parties loyal to the government.

Most active government opponents have fled the energy-rich Central Asian nation, where dissent is not tolerated.

Berdymukhamedov came to power in December 2006 after the death of Saparmurat Niyazov, who kept Turkmenistan largely isolated in two decades of authoritarian rule and an all-encompassing personality cult.

Berdymukhamedov has made vague commitments to implement democratic reforms, kindling hopes the Central Asian country would introduce greater freedoms.

But critics say Berdymukhamedov has failed to live up to his pledges.

In the 2008 parliamentary elections, almost all elected deputies were from the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. A small number of independent candidates drawn from state-approved civic groups were also allowed to run. Everybody competed on a platform of support for Berdymukhamedov.

Under reforms enacted earlier in 2008, the number of seats in Parliament was more than doubled to 125, and the chamber's powers were nominally boosted.

Another seminal development was the abolition of the rubber-stamp People's Council — a 2,507-member assembly of presidential appointees, town elders and others that was formerly Turkmenistan's highest legislative body.