For 21 years, Turkmenbashi (Father of the Turkmen) Saparmurat Niyazov kept the central Asian state of Turkmenistan under a bizarre and brutal dictatorship that fought dissent and infectious diseases simply by outlawing both. Niyazov's death from cardiac arrest in late December came as a shock to his 5 million subjects, who had never realized that "Presidents for Life" die, too. Now, six contenders are running in the first presidential election in 15 years scheduled for Feb. 11.
Who are the front-runners? Five out of six contenders are figureheads whose job is to make the election look presentable, observers say. Though clan leaders involved with natural gas, cotton and other businesses all have power aspirations, they have given way to one candidate endorsed by the late dictator's powerful security apparatus: Deputy Premier Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. The morning after the dictator's death, the Speaker of the National Parliament who, under the Constitution, was to become acting President was dismissed and arrested. The Constitution did not allow new Acting President Berdymukhammedov to run in the February election, but the rubber-stamp Parliament immediately amended it to allow his bid.
If Berdymukhammedov wins, will he be able to maintain Niyazov's iron grip? Probably not to the same degree Niyazov did. Although members of the democratic opposition are jailed at home and badly divided abroad, a coil of Islamic radicalism threatens to unwind as a natural reaction to the years of harsh suppression.
Why does it matter who rules Turkmenistan? The country is home to the world's fifth largest natural gas deposits. It also borders Iran, where a radical regime covets nukes, and Afghanistan, where the Taliban continue to fight NATO forces. The specter of increasing Islamic extremism in Turkmenistan endangers energy markets and raises the possibility of a further breakdown of regional stability.
Will Niyazov's successor pursue reforms? Berdymukhammedov has hinted at greater openness, fighting drug trafficking from Afghanistan and restoring some educational facilities his predecessor closed. A failure to reform could leave Islamic extremists in charge of a gas-rich state in a volatile region.