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, took 98% of the vote. That was actually an improvement on his previous showing in 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, unleashing “a concerted campaign of harassment against civil-society activists and journalists”, according to three human-rights groups which monitor the country.
Mr Berdymukhamedov has held power since the death of the previous eccentric dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, in 2006. He is 59—a spring chicken by the standards of Central Asian despots. He could now remain president for life, after reforms passed last year scrapped the requirement that presidential candidates be younger than 70. The reforms also extended the presidential term from five to seven years, so Mr Berdymukhamedov need not exert himself on the campaign trail 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 are being 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.