World Bulletin / News Desk
Isolated Central Asian Turkmenistan on Wednesday passed constitutional changes that could pave the way for authoritarian leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov to rule the ex-Soviet nation for life.
The alterations approved by the country's Council of Elders and unanimously endorsed by its legislature will extend presidential terms from five to seven years and scrap the 70-year age limit for candidates.
Former dentist Berdymukhamedov, 59, has lead the gas-rich state without any genuine opposition since he took over from eccentric predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov after his death in 2006.
Berdymukhamedov is expected to secure a landslide at an election viewed as a formality next year, but he promised that three parties would provide "alternatives" after signing off on the constitutional tweaks at a ceremony in front of a giant hand-woven carpet.
The election would "demonstrate the political activity, and the maturity of our people, their will to determine the country's future," he said.
Turkmenistan, one of the world's most tightly-controlled countries, has never held elections endorsed by credible international vote monitors.
Like his predecessor Niyazov -- who was accused of building up a bizarre of cult of personality during his reign -- Berdymukhamedov has had a gold statue erected in his honour in the capital Ashgabat.
The ex-Soviet Central Asia region has been dominated by strongmen since independence from Moscow in 1991.
Veteran leader of neighbouring Uzbekistan Islam Karimov died recently after 27 years of ruthless domination over his cotton-rich nation.
Turkmenistan has been hit by an economic crisis due to a fall in energy prices and the spillover of the recession in Russia.
At the ceremony Berdymukhamedov suggested that subsidies for utilities which are practically free in the country could be cut.
"There were suggestions from participants of the Council of the Elders to reconsider subsidies for water, gas and energy," Berdymukhamedov said.
"I am ordering the cabinet of ministers to consider all these proposals. We need to remember that our natural wealth should serve not only us, but future generations."
Turkmenistan devalued its manat currency by around 20 percent in early 2015 under pressure from low prices for hydrocarbons, which account for practically all of the country's exports.
On the black market the currency's value can fetch up to six manats to the dollar against an official rate of 3.5 to the dollar, down from 2.8 to the dollar in 2014.
Despite Berdymukhamedov officially encouraging belt-tightening, the country has continued to spend heavily on infrastructure ahead of the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, which it will host in Ashgabat next year.
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