It would have been heresy when Saparmurat Niyazov, otherwise known as Turkmenbashi, the Father of the Turkmens, was alive.

But the parliamentarian in Turkmenistan who suggested this week that the national anthem, punctuated with eulogistic refrains about the country’s former leader, should be modernised, received only with praise.

Turkmenistan has been emerging from international isolation since Niyazov died in 2006 and the new president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, promised to bring in reforms and involve foreign investors in development of the gas-rich country.

A parliamentary election on Sunday is portrayed as the centrepiece of plans to bring pluralism into national decision-making. But critics say the poll, contested only by government-approved candidates, will be a sham.

They say Mr Berdymukhamedov, who served as personal physician to Niyazov, is as autocratic as his predecessor.

Amendments to Turkmenistan’s constitution adopted in September handed more powers to an enlarged parliament. The Khalk Maslikhat, a council of 2,507 delegates handpicked by Niyazov, formerly the highest legislative body in the land, was dissolved and new rules introduced sanctioning the development of political parties.

Nurmuhammet Hanamov, the leader of the Vienna-based Republican Party of Turkmenistan (in exile), said the political reforms were designed to allay western criticism about Turkmenistan’s poor record on human rights.

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