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Turkmenistan election 'a formality'

Polling has taken place in Turkmenistan, where analysts believe the re-election of the energy-rich nation's president is little more than a formality.

At one polling station, loudspeakers blared out a song Sunday praising the nation's protector, which is how the president has now come to be known.

That sort of fulsome and pervasive adulation is why Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov will likely have brushed aside his seven opponents in a presidential election aimed largely at cementing his hold on power over the authoritarian Central Asian nation.

All of Mr Berdymukhamedov's nominal opponents have made praise for his leadership a central plank of their campaigns.

Mr Berdymukhamedov, a 54-year-old trained dentist, was elected to his first term with 89% of the vote in 2007, weeks after the sudden death of his eccentric, iron-fisted predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.

He came to power in the energy-rich former Soviet nation amid hopes of a gradual loosening of the closed political system, but those expectations have largely been dashed.

Turkmenistan is the subject of avid interest from the West, Russia and China for its natural gas reserves, which are estimated to be the fourth largest in the world.

"Our family is all voting for the current president. We haven't even heard of any of the other candidates," said a 21-year-old flower salesman, Toty, declining to give his surname as is common in a country where people can incur retribution for speaking to reporters.

Although salaries are low, many in Turkmenistan benefit from the highly subsidised economy which has ensured an avoidance of the kind of unrest that has led to the overthrow of authoritarian leaders across the Middle East.

"I am voting for the current president. He has made transport practically free for retirees," said 76-year-old Ashgabat resident Ninel Belgisova. Household gas, water and electricity are all provided free. Families also receive monthly rations of salt.

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