Turkmenistan approves new constitution to increase president’s powers

Turkmenistan's highest legislative body unanimously approved a new constitution Friday that will increase the president's powers but also broadens the role of parliament.

President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov hailed the reforms as a move toward greater democratization in the tightly controlled, energy-rich Central Asian nation, but exiles and observers derided the changes as superficial.

The development comes two years after the death of autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov, who had ruled with an iron fist since the Soviet era. Berdymukhamedov has implemented some reforms and moved to dispel Niyazov's personality cult, but has left the country's single-party system in place.

Under the new constitution approved by the Halk Maslahaty, or People's Council, the head of state gets to name regional governors and mayors and appoint the nation's electoral commission.

Parliament gains the right to amend the constitution and censure the president, and will almost double in size, from 65 to 125 members, after elections in mid-December.

The rubber-stamp 2,507-member Halk Maslahaty advisory council created by Niyazov will also be abolished. In 1999, the Halk Maslahaty voted to appoint Niyazov president-for-life and in 2002 it renamed months of the year after him, his mother and his self-penned holy book, the Rukhnama.

Many of Niyazov's most eccentric edicts have overturned since he died in December 2006.

Activists and academics still remained skeptical about the government's commitment to democratic reforms.

"Presidential decisions tend to overrule all others and the country is largely run by decree," said Annette Bohr, an expert on Turkmenistan at London-based international affairs research firm Chatham House.

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