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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 February 2007, 12:20 GMT
Q&A: Turkmenistan votes
People's Council, in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, featuring a portrait of late President Saparmurat Niyazov
Saparmurat Niyazov dominated life in Turkmenistan for 20 years

Voters in Turkmenistan head for the polls on Sunday to elect a successor to long-time leader Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in office in December 2006.

The acting president, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, is widely expected to win the vote and take permanent charge.

How has the country been run in recent weeks?

After more than 20 years in power, Mr Niyazov died early on 21 December 2006 at the age of 66.

Under the constitution, the speaker of parliament, Ovezgeldy Atayev, should have taken over as acting president. However, within 36 hours of Mr Niyazov's death, Mr Atayev was sacked after state prosecutors made him the subject of a criminal investigation.

The State Security Council then appointed Mr Berdymukhamedov acting president and acting supreme commander of the armed forces. Since then he has been chairing government meetings and issuing presidential decrees.

Who are the contenders?

Six candidates are running for president, all of them approved by Turkmenistan's supreme legislative body, the People's Council.

The acting president, Mr Berdymukhamedov, was nominated by the country's only political party, Mr Niyazov's Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, and is heavily favoured to win the election.

Born in 1957, he is a dentist by trade and was appointed health minister in 1997. Four years later he was also made deputy prime minister.

Since taking over as acting president, Mr Berdymukhamedov has promised to maintain his predecessor's main policies. However, he has also pledged to introduce some reforms, including unlimited access to the internet, better education and higher pensions.

Of the other five candidates, one is a deputy oil and gas minister, while the other four are relatively obscure regional officials. All of them have delivered similar pledges to those made by Mr Berdymukhamedov.

Meanwhile, the opposition-in-exile has agreed on former Central Bank chief Khudaiberdy Orazov as its candidate. However, Mr Orazov, who lives in Sweden, has said he cannot risk going back to Turkmenistan without security guarantees from the West.

How will the election work?

The People's Council has appointed a 16-strong electoral commission, comprising mainly state officials and regional governors, to organize the vote.

Under new election legislation, any single candidate needs to secure an outright majority of the votes to win. Otherwise, the two candidates gaining most support will take part in a run-off to be held within two weeks of the original polling day.

The new president will serve a five-year term.

What is at stake?

Under Mr Niyazov, Turkmenistan was a relatively stable country in an otherwise volatile region.

He wielded absolute power as president and controlled all the major offices of state. He also built a cult of personality around himself and his family and tolerated little dissent.

Mr Berdymukhamedov has said he believes the introduction of a multi-party political system and other reforms may benefit Turkmenistan.

However, many analysts believe the chances of significant change in the short term are slim.

The opposition has warned there could be serious bloodshed if the political system is not opened up.

Meanwhile, the West, as well as regional powers such as Russia and China, will be keen to see whether the outcome of the election affects Turkmenistan's energy policy.

The country possesses the world's fifth largest reserves of natural gas, and has substantial deposits of oil.

How has the campaign unfolded?

The campaign has been covered in detail by Turkmenistan's major media outlets, which are tightly controlled by the state.

Television channels and newspapers have been focusing on campaign meetings between candidates and voters, with little evidence of any of the contenders criticizing each other.

The media is said to be giving equal coverage to all of the candidates.

However, evening news bulletins on state television often open with reports on Mr Berdymukhamedov's work as acting president.

Will there be foreign observers?

Turkmenistan initially said it would allow only domestic observers to monitor the election. Subsequently it relented and invited international observers to attend as well.

However, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe says it has not had enough time to prepare, and will therefore not be conducting formal monitoring of the voting. Instead a small support team will follow the overall election process.

It remains unclear at present which other observers will be present.

What happened at previous elections?

Mr Niyazov became president of Turkmenistan in 1990. He was re-elected in a direct popular ballot in 1992.

A 1994 referendum extended Mr Niyazov's term until 2002 without any need to call elections.

Five years later the People's Council voted him president for life. No presidential elections have been held since then.

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