A one-horse race

THERE are no dark horses in elections in Turkmenistan, only stalking horses. The country was a one-party state until 2012 and the presidential election held on February 12th was the first to feature candidates from rival parties. But a multiplicity of parties, alas, is not the same as a meaningful opposition. In a nine-way race, the incumbent, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (pictured), took 98% of the vote. That was an improvement on 2012, when he pulled in a mere 97%.

Mr Berdymukhamedov, a former dentist who styles himself “Arkadag”, the “Protector”, threw himself into the campaign, crooning a song of his own composition to gas workers and doling out televisions to herdsmen in the desert. He also repressed all dissent with “a concerted campaign of harassment against civil society activists and journalists”, according to three human-rights groups.

Mr Berdymukhamedov has held power since the death of the previous eccentric dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, in 2006. He is 59—young by the standards of Central Asian despots—and may remain president for life, after reforms passed last year removed term limits and scrapped the requirement that presidential candidates be younger than 70. The reforms also extended the presidential term from five to seven years, sparing Arkadag the bother of campaigning again until 2024.

That is just as well: rather than the “Era of Supreme Happiness” that Mr Berdymukhamedov promised at his previous re-election, he is presiding over an era of low prices for Turkmenistan’s sole export, gas. Subsidies for utilities may be cut, staple goods are in short supply in some parts of the country and wages at state-owned firms are said to have gone unpaid for many workers. Humbler Turkmen, in short, do not have much to sing about.