Tuesday, February 14, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: what a nail biter

Reminiscent of the 2000 U.S. presidential election with recounts and hanging chads, this past Sunday's presidential election in Turkmenistan was a true nail biter. However, in the end, the incumbent president won his bid for re-election against a field of spirited opponents. Voters were no doubt swayed by his diplomatic leadership for the past five years and powerful oratory skills that led some to call the president a Turkmen Stephen Douglas. The president was able to carry the razor thin election against his next closest opponent by the narrowest of margins: 97% to 1.2%. (Sorry, the 82% guess is not close enough to win the prize.)

It is clear that the president was able to rally not just his base, but also the base of everyone else as voters turned up in droves to the tune of a 97% turnout. It is possible that some "corrections" had to be made to the count to compensate for the unusually cold weather that may have encouraged some to stay at home. And the fraud. The massive, massive fraud.

I view the 97% turnout with more suspicion than the 97% vote share for the president. This is based on what I perceived to be the challenges of being able to vote and just what it means for turnout to be at 97%. Let's start with the latter. A 97% turnout rate means only about 1 in 33 eligible voters did not vote. With suffrage for all citizens 18 and older, that's a large base of eligible voters, even in a country of only 5 million. Why someone might not vote could be for a myriad of reasons which we'll get to in a moment, but for every single person who does not vote, it means 32 other people must vote. That's a very high bar to clear. So, what might be the challenges to getting 32 out of 33 people to vote? As already mentioned, the weather was quite cold on Sunday so perhaps many sick or elderly stayed at home. Some people had to work (even on a Sunday) and might not have had reasonable time or access to vote, especially in my industry if they were in the field or offshore. Voting also required your domestic passport which is like a national ID card. However, it needed to show your "home" address but if you're in the middle of a move like one person I spoke with, then you need to turn your passport into the authorities so your new address can be registered. This of course then leaves you without the passport and no way to vote. Others said you needed your ID to match your current address and since many engineers here are from other parts of the country where they maintain a permanent address, they could not vote while here. Again, these are perhaps challenges that disproportionately face people I work with given their professions and mobility, but they are still obstacles towards a 97% turnout. Finally, the most compelling and likely reason for why turnout was not at 97% is why bother voting if you already know the outcome. Every single person I spoke with, whether they planned to vote or not, knew what the outcome of the election would be. That's surely one of the most compelling disincentives for voting.

As to the matter of the president winning 97% of the vote, that too raises some eyebrows, though far less than you might suspect at first glance. As compared to the turnout figure, I think it's more likely that the actual vote share was closer to 97% than the actual turnout was to 97%. Of course, I don't think either one was all that close to 97%, but there is a distinction to be made. Why might the percentage of votes be closer? Simply put, who else is there to vote for? Those were essentially the words from one person I spoke with. People did not know the other seven candidates, certainly not on a national level. The Commonwealth of Independent States had some voting monitors and they declared that the election was within democratic norms and there were only minor irregularities that would have had little impact on results. Of course minor irregularities would have little impact on results. That's because they pale in comparison to the massive irregularities endemic to the entire process. Of course, CIS has a history of dubious election monitoring and their concept of a democratic norm was likely crafted during the Soviet era. Still, the real driver for any sort of "irregularities" was not the way voting was conducted on election day. I am reasonably confident that the majority of people who wanted to vote and had ID were able to vote. What was irregular was the nature of the entire election cycle, not merely voting day. Yes, there were seven other candidates and there were some posters up, but none of them had anywhere near the level of exposure that the president had. No one else is on TV for several hours a day or on the front page of the newspaper every single day. (I'm almost surprised there isn't a website like this one for the president.) There were no debates and there was no campaigning. In fact, I saw more sophisticated campaigns for student body office in college than I did here. If you wanted information, you had to seek it out, but that's not easy when there are so few open sources. Thus, when it comes time to vote and it is one name you recognize and seven you know nothing about, either you will leave it blank (though someone else may later fill it in for you) or you will pick the name you know.

In the end, there's certainly no surprise with the results. The only bet was just how much of the vote the president would garner.

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