Moving swiftly to consolidate power, Turkmenistan's political elite endorsed the Central Asian nation's acting president Tuesday as its favored candidate to succeed the late President Saparmurad A. Niyazov.
The country's supreme legislative body, the 2,507-member People's Council, revised the constitution to allow acting President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov to run in the presidential election, which it set for Feb. 11. Before it was amended, the constitution barred the acting president from being a candidate.
"Today's decision means that Turkmenistan's leadership is not ready for radical changes and that we should expect the continuation of a Niyazov-type regime with some possible cosmetic changes," Farid Tukhbatullin, the exiled chairman of the Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, said in a telephone interview.
The People's Council nominated five other candidates, but they were viewed as weak figures whose role would be to give the balloting an appearance of legitimacy.
Berdimukhamedov's nomination was approved unanimously, the Russian news agency Interfax said, and the other candidates' approvals ranged from 1,779 to 2,011 votes.
Some observers said Akmurad Rejepov, head of the presidential security service, was playing the role of kingmaker and would be the power behind the president.
Berdimukhamedov, 49, was trained as a dentist and was the nation's health minister before becoming deputy prime minister, the position he held when Niyazov died Thursday, leaving no clear successor.
Authorities said Niyazov, 66, died of a heart attack. He was an eccentric leader who ruled the former Soviet republic with an iron hand and encouraged an extravagant personality cult.
He became Turkmenistan's Communist Party boss in 1985. After the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, he won election the next year with 99.5% of the vote in balloting that outsiders deemed neither free nor fair.
Turkmenistan, mostly desert and slightly larger than California, is predominantly Muslim. It has 5 million people and large natural gas reserves. It is a major exporter of gas to Europe, by way of Russia, which purchases the resource and resells it.
Analysts have predicted that Niyazov's death could trigger competition between the U.S. and Russia for influence in Turkmenistan.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, who headed the U.S. delegation to Niyazov's funeral Sunday, told journalists in Ashgabat, the capital, that Washington hoped to see greater openness in Turkmenistan.
"We are certainly hoping for a peaceful and stable transition, a transition to a government that will try to provide justice, democracy, that the people of Turkmenistan deserve," Boucher said.
Signs of a power struggle appeared the day Niyazov died.
Under the constitution, the speaker of parliament, a smaller and less powerful body than the People's Council, should have become acting president.
But the man holding that post, Ovezgeldy Atayev, was pushed aside and arrested within hours of Niyazov's death. The prosecutor general's office accused him of inciting discord among clans.
Although Berdimukhamedov appears likely to be elected president in February, Rejepov, head of the presidential security service, may be the stronger of the two.
"Berdimukhamedov is not really a strongman. He is simply a facade for Akmurad Rejepov," Tukhbatullin said. "He is accustomed to playing one of the most significant roles in the country and is confident that he can continue to do it as a gray cardinal."
Clan rivalries play an important role in Turkmenistan's politics and may influence the succession. Niyazov's presumed successor comes from the powerful Teke clan, as did Niyazov, and that may help ensure he can be smoothly elected, Tukhbatullin said.
Rejepov is a member of a smaller, less powerful clan, he said.
Nurmukhamed Khanamov, an exiled opposition leader, said in a telephone interview from Vienna that opposition figures based in various European countries wanted to return to their homeland but that many had decided it was too dangerous.
"We don't want to stick our heads into a noose and deprive the opposition of its leadership," he said.
Khanamov also said Rejepov would be the power behind Niyazov's successor. He said he saw no possibility of launching a peaceful people's revolution that could upset the political elite's plans.
"Despite the fact that people are sick and tired of the regime, they are still frozen by fear, and it is impossible to lead them out into the streets now," he said.
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.