In Turkmenistan, a gas-rich nation that does not permit political dissent or a free press, the first round of parliamentary elections began on Sunday.

The vote, which was held after the upper chamber of the legislature was abolished and a supreme body was established, is the first under the new president of the Central Asian country, who assumed office last year after a hereditary succession.

According to an AFP correspondent in the nation’s capital Ashgabat, polling places started at seven am (0200 GMT) and will close at seven pm (1400 GMT).

The former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan is one of the most oppressive and secretive countries in the world, and little is known about the decisions the government makes on a daily basis.

One family has dominated the nation for nearly 20 years, and there haven’t been any elections.In 2006, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, a former dentist and minister of health, succeeded Saparmurat Niyazov as the leader of the nation.

After a symbolic snap election, Berdymukhamedov, who fostered a potent cult of personality throughout his rule, passed the reins over to his son Serdar last year, but he retained his post as head of the upper house of parliament.

The 65-year-old proposed in January creating “a highest representative body of people’s authority,” the Halk Maslahaty or “People’s Council,” in place of the upper house, which was established at his request in 2021.

Although being dubbed the president of the new organization, analysts claim that the real power is still held by Berdymukhamedov Senior, also known as Arkadag or “Protector.”

The new council’s mandate eclipses that of the 125-member unicameral national assembly and covers the key facets of Turkmenistan’s domestic and foreign policy.

A new city is being created in honor of Berdymukhamedov Senior, who has visited with numerous international leaders since resigning, including Russian President Vladimir Putin last year.

In terms of press freedom, Turkmenistan is still one of the most closed-off nations in the world, ranking 177th out of 180 nations, ahead of Iran, Eritrea, and North Korea.

Gas exports to China, as well as to a lesser extent to Russia and Iran, are extremely important to its economy.