ASHGABAT - Turkmenistan on Sunday voted in presidential elections expected to see President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov cruise to a new term at the helm of the isolated state challenged only by token opposition.

Seven candidates are standing against the president, who took power after the death in 2006 of eccentric dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, but all are loyal members of the elite who have not sounded a note of criticism in the campaign.

Voting took place in a festive atmosphere with bands playing traditional music while food and even presents were handed to voters, said an AFP reporter who was taken on a tour of polling stations by the election commission. With the authorities making clear that voting was a national duty, the election commission said over 68 percent of the electorate had cast their ballot by 0900 GMT in what is set to be a mass turnout.

In a clear nudge to voters, the anchor on state television proclaimed: "Aware of their great responsibility for the future of the motherland, the people will choose the most worthy of the eight candidates." Berdymukhamedov cast his vote alongside his son, grandson and his father Myalikguly Berdymukhamedov, who with conspicuous timing last week was given the honour of having a police unit named after him, official media said.

"Our hero president is the only one to take us along the true path. He is the Protector and pillar of the people," voter Gozel Sopyyeva, 60, said at a polling station outside Ashgabat.

Berdymukhamedov, an ex-dentist who became Niyazov's health minister after rising through the ranks of dentistry, won the last polls in 2007 with over 89 percent and it would be a major surprise if he polled much less this time.

The elections are just the third in Turkmenistan's post-Soviet history: Niyazov won a notorious ballot in 1992 in which he was the sole candidate with 99.5 percent and was then declared by parliament president for life in 1999.

While energy-rich Turkmenistan is promoting the elections as a new step in a programme of democratic reforms, Berdymukhamedov's promise last summer to include genuine opposition in the polls appears not to have been fulfilled.

"Even though there are eight candidates, there was no real election campaign. The authorities want to show competition but it is just between themselves," a Western diplomat told AFP.

The figurehead rival candidates include Energy and Industry Minister Yarmukhammet Orazgulyev as well as a state energy boss, the water resources minister and the director of a cotton factory.

Just under three million people have the right to vote across the vast ex-Soviet state that extends from the Caspian Sea to Afghanistan and is one of the most secretive nations in the world along with North Korea.

Berdymukhamedov has started cautious reform after the excesses of the notorious personality cult under Niyazov, which extended to installing a golden statue of himself in Ashgabat that rotated to always face the sun.

In a half decade that Turkmenistan calls the "Era of Rebirth", Berdymukhamedov had reopened cinemas, theatres and research institutes and started to encourage foreign majors to help exploit its vast energy reserves.

But the president still presides over an autocratic state that cracks down on dissent and he has not been shy of creating a personality cult of his own with his image ubiquitous around the country.

As Niyazov called himself "Turkmenbashi" (Father of All Turkmens), Berdymukhamedov is known as the "Arkadag" (Protector).

Turkmenistan has issued no invitation for Western observers to assess the elections on a full-scale mission while human rights workers and journalists have also been denied access to the country.

Amnesty International said ahead of the polls that Turkmenistan was still perpetrating "serious human rights violations" including torture in jails and severe restrictions on political and religious expression.

It said rights activists Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khadzhiev, convicted in 2007 of firearms charges, were still in custody while dissident Gulgeldy Annaniyazov has been held in incommunicado detention since being jailed in 2008.