People have begun voting in Turkmenistan’s presidential election, in which President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is highly expected to secure a third term in office.
Polling stations opened at 7:00 (0200 GMT) on Sunday and will close at 19:00 (1400 GMT), according to the central electoral commission.
The 59-year-old Berdymukhamedov is from the gas-rich country’s Democratic Party and enjoys huge popularity. He is commonly referred to as Arkadag (Protector) and is set to easily win the Sunday election.
The eight other candidates competing against Berdymukhamedov are all either public servants, managers of state-owned companies, or nominees of political parties loyal to the government.
Last year, an amendment to Turkmenistan’s constitution effectively allowed Berdymukhamedov to stay in power indefinitely, removing the 70-year age limit for presidential candidates and extending the presidential term to seven years from five.
In the 2012 presidential election, Berdymukhamedov gained 97 percent of the votes, securing his place in office for a second term.
“Out of the nine [candidates], I only know and understand the current president,” said Aiperi Tashliyeva, a 48-year-old homemaker from the capital, Ashgabat. “I do not know on what merits or for what reasons the others became candidates. Therefore, I will vote for Berdymukhamedov.”
Berdymukhamedov has been at the helm of the former Soviet republic with five million people since 2006, succeeding the autocratic president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in 2006.
Gilded statues of both leaders have been set up in Ashgabat.
Last year, Serdar Berdymukhamedov, the president’s only son, who had previously kept a low public profile, became a member of parliament after winning a by-election.