Turkmen President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov won 97 percent of votes in an election that cemented his absolute rule of a Central Asian state holding 4 percent of the world's natural gas reserves, election officials said on Monday.

Berdymukhamedov, 54, secured five more years as president after brushing aside seven token challengers who held no ambition of unseating the trained dentist who leads a country ranked by rights groups among the world's most repressive.

At polling stations on Sunday, performers in national costume sang eulogies to their president, whose word is final in a former Soviet state of 5.5 million people bordering Iran and Afghanistan. His subjects call him Arkadag - the Patron.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declined to send an observation mission after concluding its presence was unnecessary given limited freedoms and the lack of political competition.

Energy companies are vying for a share of Turkmenistan's natural gas reserves, the world's joint fourth-largest, as well as oilfields in the Caspian Sea. Residents benefit from heavily subsidised utilities and relatively cheap gasoline.

But dissent is crushed, media is tightly controlled by the state and the only political opposition has long lived in exile. Human Rights Watch has criticised draconian restrictions on media and religious freedoms in the mainly Muslim country.

Turnout among 2.9 million registered voters was also just shy of 97 percent, the election commission said, while the president's margin of victory exceeded the 89 percent he polled during the last election in February 2007.

This speaks of the nation's cohesion, said Orazmurad Niyazlyev, chairman of the election commission.

After the 2007 poll, Berdymukhamedov began to dismantle the cult of personality around Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan's first post-Soviet leader, who died of a heart attack in December 2006.

Seeking investment and markets for his gas, Berdymukhamedov has taken steps to bring his country out of the isolation of the Niyazov era, engaging foreign governments and avoiding the more eccentric traits of a predecessor who banned opera and ballet.

Though extraordinarily high, Berdymukhamedov's victory fell short of the 99.5 percent polled by Niyazov when he was elected president in 1992. Niyazov later named the month of January after his adopted title of Turkmenbashi, Head of All Turkmen.

NO SYRIA HERE

Though his absolutist tendencies pale next to those of his predecessor, Berdymukhamedov is acquiring his own cult status. Already prime minister and commander of the armed forces, he was bestowed with the title Hero of Turkmenistan last year.

State television showed the president arriving to vote in a modest white Lada Zhiguli, accompanied by his father, son and grandson. Dressed in business suit and tie, he thrust his voting slip into a transparent ballot box.

The Russian head of the monitoring mission sent by the Commonwealth of Independent States, a grouping of former Soviet states, said his heart rejoiced at the vote.

We don't want the same kind of elections and democracy that we are seeing today in Libya and Egypt, CIS Executive Secretary Sergei Lebedev told a news conference.

Look at what's happening in Syria, where the people are being thrown into the abyss of civil war, supposedly under the guise of democracy.

Turkmenistan's exiled opposition played no part in the election. They say Berdymukhamedov did not follow through on a promise to invite opponents back home to contest the vote.

Berdymukhamedov's opponents, many of whom residents failed to recognise on election posters, were drawn instead from state-run enterprises and government ministries. Most openly praised the president's achievements.

(Writing by Robin Paxton)