Voters in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan began voting Sunday in a presidential election that is widely seen as a test of bold reforms to move from authoritarianism to a parliamentary democracy.
AP - Voters in the turbulent Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan headed to polling stations Sunday to cast their ballots in a presidential election that could set a democratic precedent for the region.
Three main contenders are vying for victory in the vote, which pits front-runner Almazbek Atambayev against two popular nationalist politicians - Kamchibek Tashiyev and Adakhan Madumarov.
Outgoing President Roza Otunbayeva, a seasoned diplomat who served as ambassador in Washington and London and has been running the country as interim leader since 2010, will step down later this year to make way for the election winner. That sets the stage for the first peaceful transition of power in the economically struggling ex-Soviet nation’s history.
Will the election in Kyrgyzstan end its troubled political history?
Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished nation of around 5 million people on China’s western fringes, is home to both U.S. and Russian military air bases, making its fortunes the subject of lively international interest.
If nobody garners more than 50 percent of ballots in the election, a runoff will have to be held within a month between the two top vote-getters.
Atambayev, who had the best-funded campaign and enjoyed significant public exposure by serving as prime minister until last month, said he hoped everything would be settled within one round.
“I have bright hopes, it is time for our country to live, achieve harmony and flourish. People are tired of political battles and meetings,” he said after voting.
The election is the culmination of a movement for political reform away from the strong authoritarian model that has prevailed in the country since independence in 1991.
Over the last two decades, elections have been purely formal exercises designed to lend a threadbare veil of legitimacy to the ruling elite. Former strongman leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev and his predecessor, mathematician Askar Akayev, left office only after being literally chased out of by angry mobs.
Speaking after casting her ballot at a music college in the capital, Bishkek, Otunbayeva said the election would consolidate the parliamentary system adopted under constitutional reforms approved last year.
“What is important is that we have chosen parliamentary governance in our country,” Otunbayeva told The Associated Press, speaking in English. “People will choose the route of freedom - freedom of speech, freedom of assembly.”
That sentiment was echoed by Atambayev.
“Over the course of 20 years, we have seen that we don’t need absolute power that is transformed into a dictatorship,” Atambayev said after voting.
Walburga Habsburg Douglas, who is leading the Organization for Security and Cooperation’s observer mission, said Otunbayeva’s decision to step down will be a boost for the development of democracy in Central Asia, where most countries are ruled by authoritarian presidents.
“I think this (will) be a very good example for other countries in the region,” said Habsburg Douglas.
While the election has been hailed by many as a victory for democracy, many are concerned that the vote could lay bare interregional divisions. Atambayev’s following is mainly in the north, while his nationalist opponents’ main base of support is in the south.
Southern Kyrgyzstan, which lies along a major route for heroin trafficked northward from nearby Afghanistan, has seen waves of political unrest over the past year and was the site of ethnic clashes last summer in which hundreds of people, mainly minority ethnic Uzbeks, were killed.
Madumarov and Tashiyev have repeatedly leveled accusations of possible vote-rigging ahead of the election.
“The main thing is that should be no evidence of fraud and the election results must not be falsified,” Tashiyev said Sunday.
Electioneering has been relatively low-key and voters at Kyrgyz National University in Bishkek early Sunday seemed largely fatalistic about the outcome.
“These elections are important for the politicians, but not really for the simple people,” said 19-year old journalism student Manas Aslanbekov. “It is clear who is going to win, it is the person who has the most money.”
Date created : 2011-10-30