* President Berdymukhamedov promises multi-party system
* Token nod to democracy will not loosen president’s grip
* Gas-rich nation plans agrarian and entrepreneurs’ parties (Adds analyst comment)
By Marat Gurt
ASHGABAT, March 27 (Reuters) - Turkmenistan plans to launch two political parties that would break the ruling party’s monopoly but pose no challenge to President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s absolute rule of the reclusive former Soviet republic.
State television on Tuesday showed Deputy Prime Minister Sapardurdy Toylyev telling Berdymukhamedov that work was under way to create an agrarian party and an enterpreneurs’ party in the gas-producing Central Asian state.
The TV report quoted the president as saying he was serious about developing democracy in a country where his own party, the Democratic Party, is the only legally registered political force and monopolises political life.
“The creation of a multi-party system in Turkmenistan corresponds with our aims to democratise society and undertake major social reforms,” he was quoted as saying.
But analysts are sceptical that Berdymukhamedov - known as Arkadag, or The Patron - plans to relax his tight grip on the desert nation of 5.5 million people.
“This could signal the beginning of managed democracy, but the rigid nature of the current system and lack of political opposition makes it unlikely these parties could pursue independent agendas,” said Eurasia Group analyst Gemma Ferst.
During a Feb. 12 presidential election shunned by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s election monitoring arm for its lack of competition, Berdymukhamedov set himself up against seven token challengers.
Though formally his challengers, the candidates were drawn from government ministries and state enterprises, and several openly praised the president’s achievements prior to the vote.
Turkmenistan’s exiled opposition did not take part in the election, saying Berdymukhamedov had not made good on a promise to invite his opponents back home to contest the vote. Berdymukhamedov won 97 percent of the vote.
Re-elected for a second five-year term, 54-year-old Berdymukhamedov had already given his blessing for the creation of opposition parties.
A law permitting the registration of such parties came into force in January, and in his first public comments after winning re-election, he said he aimed to build a market economy and multi-party political system.
Turkmen opposition activists have long lived in exile and rights groups rank the country, which holds 4 percent of global natural gas reserves, among the world’s most repressive states.
Human Rights Watch said in its latest annual report that media and religious freedoms were subject to “draconian restrictions.”
Berdymukhamedov is anxious to win foreign investment and markets for the country’s future gas ambitions, however, and has taken steps to bring Turkmenistan out of the isolation that accompanied the eccentric rule of predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov, who banned opera and renamed the months of the year. (Additional reporting and writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Karolina Tagaris)