Although the constitution guarantees the right to form political parties, in fact the former Communist Party of Turkmenistan has retained the political control exercised by its predecessor. Opposition parties and other politically active groups have remained small and without broad support.
Democratic Party of Turkmenistan
At the twenty-fifth congress of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan held in December 1991, the party was renamed the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, and Niyazov was confirmed as its chairman. According to its new program, the Democratic Party serves as a "mother party" that dominates political activity and yet promotes the activity of a loyal political opposition. Following a proposal of Niyazov, a party called the Peasant Justice Party, composed of regional secretaries of the Democratic Party, was registered in 1992 as an opposition party.
The Democratic Party of Turkmenistan essentially retains the apparatus of the former communist party. Party propaganda aims at explaining the need for preserving stability, civil peace, and interethnic accord. Party publications boast that its primary organizations operate in every enterprise, organization, and institution, and that its membership includes over 165,000, whereas critics claim that most citizens hardly are aware of the party's existence.
The 1992 constitution establishes rights concerning freedom of religion, the separation of church and state, freedom of movement, privacy, and ownership of private property. Both the constitution and the 1991 Law on Public Organizations guarantee the right to create political parties and other public associations that operate within the framework of the constitution and its laws. Such activity is restricted by prohibitions of parties that "encroach on the health and morals of the people" and on the formation of ethnic or religious parties. This provision has been used by the government to ban several groups.
In the mid-1990s, Niyazov described opposition groups as lacking both popular support and political programs offering constructive alternatives to existing policy. He has cited these qualities in disqualifying groups from eligibility to register as opposition parties. Insofar as such groups have the potential to promote ethnic or other tensions in society, they may be viewed as illegal, hence subject to being banned under the constitution.
Given such an environment, opposition activity in Turkmenistan has been quite restrained. A small opposition group called Unity (Agzybirlik), originally registered in 1989, consists of intellectuals who describe the party program as oriented toward forming a multiparty democratic system on the Turkish model. Unity has devoted itself to issues connected with national sovereignty and the replacement of the communist political legacy. After being banned in January 1990, members of Unity founded a second group called the Party for Democratic Development, which focused on reforms and political issues. That party's increasing criticism of authoritarianism in the postindependence government led to its being banned in 1991. The original Unity group and its offspring party jointly publish a newspaper in Moscow called Daynach (Support), distribution of which is prohibited in Turkmenistan. In 1991 these two opposition groups joined with others in a coalition called Conference (Gengesh), aimed at effecting democratic reforms in the republic.
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