August 18, 2013

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan (AFP) – Turkmenistan’s president announced Saturday he was stepping down as leader of the ruling party while he remained in office to promote a multi-party system in the isolated former Soviet state.

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov told a party congress that he was resigning as leader of the ruling Democratic Party, which he has led since 2006, because he wanted to remain above party politics, according to television footage broadcast Saturday evening.

“I am suspending my membership of the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan while I am president,” Berdymukhamedov said.

“I also think that it would be useful for those who hold positions of responsibility in the government not to be members of a party while they are carrying out their functions,” he added.

A government source earlier in the day had quoted Berdymukhamedov as telling the party congress that “the president of a country should not be a member of any party, so as not to create advantages for his party in a multi-party system.”

Berdymukhamedov, a dentist by profession, took power in 2006 after the death of his father, eccentric dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, who erected a golden rotating statue of himself as part of a bizarre personality cult.

Berdymukhamedov also took over as Democratic Party leader from Niyazov. Formerly the Turkmen branch of the Soviet Communist Party, it was the country’s only party for two decades.

Last year, a new law authorized the creation of a new political party called the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs of Turkmenistan.

Both parties are set to contest parliamentary elections in December.

Berdymukhamedov has embarked on tentative reforms, although his critics say the stabs at change have been little more than window dressing and he has done little to truly dismantle Niyazov’s legacy.

The president also said that as leader of the armed forces, the law bars him from being a member of any party, according to a government source.

It was unclear whether the party members would immediately vote for a new leader.