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for the first time, turkmenistan reduces the power of its executive

For the First Time, Turkmenistan Reduces the Power of its Executive

Author: Haley Nelson

Jan 27, 2023

Image source: Shutterstock

Former President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov is still holding a tight grip on the reigns of his government as he reinforces the power of his own position and undercuts his son, Serdar Berdimuhamedov, the current President. After retiring from his Presidential post and handing himself the chair of the Halk Maslakhaty (the People’s Council) in April 2022, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov has now recreated the responsibilities of his job, flipping the power of the government in favor of the legislature. 

In an autocratic regime, the supreme leader is typically unconstrained by bureaucratic opposition. And, in theory, the president can avoid the messy inconveniences of the bureaucracy and directly dictate the direction of the state. However, Turkmenistan is altering this power dynamic for the first time in its history, emphasizing the role of the legislature as a counterweight to the executive. This power flip allows the former President to reconsolidate his monopoly on power.

First proposed by Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, the former President’s revival of power was fully confirmed on January 21, when the bicameral National Council (Milli Gengesh), the decision-making body of Turkmenistan, split reverting to a unicameral parliament with only the Mejlis, the previous lower house, remaining. The Halk Maslakhaty became the “Supreme Body of the People's Power" and the former President became the head of the entire legislature. State-run broadcasters plastered Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov’s standing ovation at the People’s Council across the nation’s television screens as he was officially named the “national leader of the Turkmen people.” 

As a separate legislative body, the Supreme Body of the People's Power is now the highest body of representation, with the authority to single-handedly adopt and amend constitutional law, supervise all branches of the government, and determine the foreign and domestic policies of the state. Any decisions or resolutions passed by the Halk Maslakhaty must be implemented by all civil servants, including the President. This means that President Serdar Berdimuhamedov must now be compliant to the decisions of the legislature, thus stripping him of meaningful decision-making responsibilities. 

After Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov retired from his 15-year post last April, there’s been a lack of clarity in power, and it has been assumed that Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov only intended for his son to be a proxy leader. During Serdar’s choreographed campaign, it was never questioned whether he would succeed in the managed snap election, but what was questionable was the role his father would play in the new government. 

As the shadow ruler of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov maintained a hand in most international agreements, often receiving and visiting foreign government officials, sitting in for his son at summits and government meetings, and retracting statements and decisions made by his son. It appears that the hasty re-organization of the government was sparked by Gurbanguly’s dissatisfaction with his son’s rule. 

In September, Serdar Berdimuhamedov released his five-point foreign policy vision, his twist on his father’s foreign policy, based on maintaining neutrality, diversifying foreign economic relations, promoting development, and “humanizing international relations.” However, behind his rehearsed press conferences, these objectives were handed down from his father’s regime, cloaked with a new title. 

Further undercutting his son, on November 11, at the Summit of the Heads of State of the Organization of Turkic States (OTS), Gurbanguly stood-in for Serdar and overrode his son’s decision to join the OTS.

More recently, Turkmenistan hosted the Presidents of Azerbaijan and Türkiye at the Caspian seaside resort of Awaza ahead of their summit on December 14. Although Serdar Berdimuhamedov met with his Azerbaijani and Turkish counterparts, interestingly, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov’s wife, Ogulgerek Berdymukhammedova, met with the Vice President and First Lady of Azerbaijan, Mehriban Aliyeva, and Türkiye’s First Lady, Emine Erdogan, on the sidelines of the summit. 

  Gurbanguly’s retaking of the state has lessened Serdar’s role in Turkmenistan’s domestic and foreign policy. In fact, this may be the first time the world has seen an authoritarian regime reduce the power of the executive, at least to this extent, to increase the nominal decision-making abilities of the legislature. 

Looking back over the transition, Serdar Berdimuhamedov’s inheritance of power has served as the face of a shallow rebranding of Turkmenistan's foreign relations, failing to provide a meaningful political shift. His father’s previous regime was internationally criticized for “bad governance, repression, and a grim economy.” And, instead of repairing its reputation, this dynastic transition attempted to preserve the regime under a facade of progress. People don’t know which of the Berdymukhammedovs is really running the country, but whoever is in charge isn’t doing a good job.” 

Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov’s hand will remain in the country’s policies and decisions, and the new amendments officially uphold the supremacy of the former President without undermining the attempted rebranding. This may give time for the young President to prepare for his role, delaying real control until his father deems him ready. However, until Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov withdraws from his position of power, Turkmenistan will not be able to shed its image as an arbitrary and dysfunctional government. 


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