In May 1992, Turkmenistan became the first Central Asian republic to enact a post-independence constitution. It sets up a "secular democracy," and formally upholds the balance of powers between executive, legislative, and judicial branches, but in reality the republic is a presidential autocracy, under the control of President Niyazov. The executive branch of government is the responsibility of a prime minister and his cabinet, all of whom are appointed by the president. The republic's economy is centrally planned and controlled, as in Soviet times, giving the government wide powers. Niyazov issues edicts that have the force of law and appoints and removes judges and local officials. The constitution includes an impressive list of individual rights and safeguards (though not freedom of the press), but cautions that the exercise of rights must not violate national morality and public order, or damage national security.
The new constitution creates a People's Council (Khalk Maslakhaty) with mixed executive and legislative powers, consisting of the president, ministers, the fifty legislators of the Supreme Council (Mejlis), sixty "people's representatives," and others. The people's representatives were elected by district in a virtually uncontested vote in December 1992. The Khalk Maslakhaty serves as a forum and rubber stamp for the president's policy initiatives. Resurrecting pre-Soviet customs, a Council of Elders, hand-picked by Niyazov, was also created to advise the president and choose presidential candidates. Oppositionists complained that both these bodies were designed to stifle dissent. A new Mejlis of 50 members was elected in December 1994. The candidates were all nominated by Niyazov, ran unopposed, and most were members of his Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT). The Mejlis routinely supports presidential decrees and has little legislative initiative.
Elections to the Turkmen 50-seat legislature (Mejlis) were held on 12 December 1999. Niyazov rejected a role for parties, stating that partisanship could lead to clan rivalries. Instead, he directed that nominating groups choose "professional" candidates, and they dutifully selected two candidates per constituency to run. There was no discussion of political issues or problems during the campaign. Prior to the race, Niyazov stepped up his repression of political and religious dissidents, and in late December pushed through a constitutional change naming Niyazov president for life. The OSCE refused to send monitors to oversee the elections, citing the government's control over the electoral process. In 2001 Niyazov published Rukhname, a spiritual guide that became an informal legal code for the country. It is a guide to Turkmen national cultural and ethical personal behavior.The lack of democratization in Turkmenistan was accentuated during the 11 April 1998 election of sixty unpaid "people's representatives" to the Khalk Maslakhaty. Turnout was reported at 99.5%, though some of the candidates ran unchallenged and no real campaigning or political party contestation occurred.
In August 2002, the Khalk Maslakhaty met for the first time in almost three years. It was not clear why the session was called.