In a totalitarian state best known for the bizarre personality cult of Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan’s former leader, the reforms proposed last month by Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, acting president, came out of the blue.

Observers of the central Asian republic are used to a different flavour of Turkmen politics after 21 years under the rule of a totalitarian president who squandered gas revenues on gilded monuments to himself and built ice palaces in the desert.

The acting president has recommended a democratic transfer of power and professed openness to political dialogue and, possibly, a multi-party system. But few expect real change when Turkmenistan goes to the polls on Sunday.

Mr Berdymukhamedov will face no more than a mock challenge from five candidates, including four regional governors and a deputy minister of oil.

Outsiders have been eliminated from the race and prominent opponents ar­rested.Former officials who fled persecution have formed an opposition coalition in exile but judge it too dangerous to return to contest the election.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has said that, as the first presidential election to take place in Turkmenistan with more than one candidate, the upcoming poll “merits support”. But it warned that there was “no guarantee of competitive elections” and said it had not had time to organise a mission to decide on the fairness of the ballot.

Little is known about Mr Berdymukhamedov, a dentist by training who retained posts as health minister and deputy prime minister for several years in spite of Niyazov’s frequent purges of the administration.

Niyazov did not publicly name a successor and opposition members say the ailing dictator fixed on Mr Berdymukhamedov as his heir after failing to persuade his son to accept the role of future leader last year. Ru­mours that Mr Berdymuk­hamedov, 47, is Niyazov’s undeclared son may win him support in a country where clan bonds are respected.

Jonathan Stern, the head of gas research at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, said Mr Berdymukhamedov’s statements so far offered some room for optimism. “Mr Berdymukhamedov’s tone is encouragingly sensible. But these are the earliest possible days. It is hard to know if Mr Berdymuk­hamedov will be a permanent fixture or a transitional leader.”

He has promised that travel restrictions will be eased and that the internet will be widely available by 2015 – a bold advance for a republic where even government ministries are forbidden to accept foreign faxes.

He has also promised to prioritise improvements to healthcare, pensions and education, all of which were curtailed during the latter years of Niyazov’s rule.

As health minister, Mr Berdymukhamedov was res­ponsible for enforcing Niyazov’s orders to close regional hospitals and res­trict medicine imports, is­sued on the grounds that Turkmens were too robust to sicken.

However vague these hopes of political and economic reform, there are still fears that softening of the regime could unleash unrest.

The authorities are reported to have killed 23 inmates of the notoriously harsh Ovaden Dele prison during a riot that erupted after news broke of Niyazov’s death. Ovaden Dele houses political prisoners including thousands jailed after an attempted assassination of Niyazov in 2002.

Wider social upheaval would be more difficult to contain. A crisis is looming in the agriculture sector amid rumours that the government sold off seed after a poor harvest last autumn, an action that would preclude spring sowing.

Martha Olcott, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: “There is real danger of social unrest in coming months if these rumours prove true.”

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