(Writes through with new details, quotes, background)
By Michael Steen
ASHGABAT, Dec 26 (Reuters) - Turkmen legislators handed a Soviet-style unanimous nomination for next president on Tuesday to the man who stood in as caretaker after autocratic leader Saparmurat Niyazov died last week.
Acting President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov now looks almost certain to win a Feb. 11 election that Turkmenistan-watchers see as largely symbolic in the gas-rich country which has never held an election judged free by Western monitors.
Niyazov ruled the state for 21 years, through Soviet rule and independence, and designed his security apparatus on the Soviet KGB, making it key for any successor to have good relations with the powerful sector.
In a sign of respect for Niyazov referred to at home as Turkmenbashi or Head of the Turkmen, his golden seat remained symbolically empty during a five-hour congress of 2,500 members of the Halk Maslakhaty, a Soviet-style top legislative body.
After setting Feb. 11 as election day, the chamber drew up a list of six candidates to run but made clear who was favoured.
“In the name of the memory of our great leader, in the name of our bright future, I urge you to vote for Berdymukhamedov!” Onjik Musayev, secretary of the Democratic Party, Turkmenistan’s only registered party, shouted to the packed chamber, thumping the lectern, his voice breaking with emotion.
A forest of hands shot up in a gesture of unanimous support for Berdymukhamedov, a former dentist who served for 10 years as a cabinet member in the strategically placed Central Asian country bordering Iran and Afghanistan.
He will face five relatively unknown officials such as Oraz Karajayev, major of the town of Owadon, MP Amanniyaz Atajikov and Deputy Oil Minister Ishanguly Nuriyev.
Turkmenistan experts are already asking if the new president would keep unfettered power as enjoyed by Niyazov, who declared himself president-for-life and named streets, towns, banks, buildings and a brand of vodka after himself.
The question is key to foreign investors seeking continuity to their existing oil and gas deals in a country lying on some of the world’s biggest natural gas reserves. The acting leader has already vowed to stick to Niyazov’s agreements.
Parakhat Yklymov, a Sweden-based opposition activist, said the presidential candidates were likely to be formal figures backed by the shadowy members of the powerful security sector, known as “siloviki” in the former Soviet world.
“(The head of the presidential guards Akmurad) Rejepov could be behind any of them,” he told Reuters by telephone.
Turkmenistan’s exiled opposition joined forces and put forward Khudaiberdy Orazov, leader of the Watan movement, to run in the poll. It was unclear if he will be allowed to do so.
Most opposition figures live in exile and have no influence inside Turkmenistan. In the last presidential poll in 1994, Niyazov was the only candidate. He won 99.9 percent of the vote, but officials promised a democratic election this time.
“There are sometimes complaints that there is no democracy in Turkmenistan. You have seen yourself this is not so,” said Murad Karriyev, head of the central election commission.
“If someone from the outside wants to monitor (the poll) they can solve this through the foreign ministry, but I can assure you our national observers are better because they work from the heart.”
Removing a legal obstacle to Berdymukhamedov’s candidacy, the chamber also voted on changing the constitution to delete a sentence barring the acting head of state from running in the election,
Diplomats cautioned that the situation was still too unpredictable — and the acting government too secretive — to see how exactly the Muslim country of five million would be run.
“I don’t know what will happen later on if there’s any disagreement between the ‘siloviki’,” one diplomat in Ashgabat told Reuters. “But for the moment it is clear that they have agreed to back one candidate.” (Additional reporting by Marat Gurt, Gleb Bryanski)