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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 January 2007, 16:36 GMT
Turkmen candidate pledges reforms
Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov
Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was deputy prime minister
Turkmenistan's interim leader has pledged reforms at the start of campaigning in the polls to succeed the late autocratic president.

Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov promised unlimited access to the internet, better education and higher pensions.

But he also said he would maintain Saparmurat Niyazov's policies following his sudden death on 21 December.

Mr Berdymukhamedov is seen by many as the likely man to replace Mr Niyazov in the 11 February elections.

He is one of six candidates in the polls.

Mr Niyazov ruled uninterrupted for 21 years in the energy-rich Central Asian country.

Election pledges

"Internet should be accessible to every one of our citizens," Mr Berdymukhamedov told a crowd of some 1,000 people in his first campaign speech in the capital, Ashgabat, on Wednesday.

Funeral of Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov
Saparmurat Niyazov died of a heart attack on 21 December

Only 1% of Turkmenistan's five million people currently have internet access, and most of the websites are blocked by the state, the BBC's regional correspondent Natalia Antelava says.

Mr Berdymukhamedov also said the country needed to "completely reconsider the educational programme" so that students would get the opportunity to study abroad.

Turkmenistan's education system is presently based almost entirely on Mr Niyazov's book, Rukhnama, our correspondent says.

She says work and study abroad are currently banned, foreign languages are not part of the curriculum, and degrees from international universities are invalid.

Mr Berdymukhamedov also vowed that, if elected, he would support small businesses and private ownership - none of which exists in Turkmenistan.

But he also pledged to follow in the footsteps of Mr Niyazov, who ruled with a powerful personality cult and tolerated no dissent, our correspondent says.

'Sign of changes'

Mr Berdymukhamedov - the former deputy prime minister - was appointed acting president by Turkmen legislators and later nominated as one of the six presidential candidates.

Turkmenistan's map

Mr Berdymukhamedov's candidacy received unanimous backing from the 2,500-strong People's Council, which amended the constitution on Tuesday to allow him to stand.

Before the amendment, acting presidents were banned from contesting elections.

Mr Berdymukhamedov is seen as a favourite, and - like all of the contenders - is full of praise for his predecessor, our correspondent says.

Although many in Turkmenistan believe this is the only way to guarantee stability, there are hopes that Mr Berdymukhamedov's speech is a sign of the coming changes, she says.

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