Thousands rally as losing parties dispute Kyrgyz vote

Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) (AFP) –

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Thousands rallied in Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek Monday to protest the results of a parliamentary ballot that international monitors said was tainted by "credible allegations of vote-buying."

The vote was dominated by two parties close to pro-Russian President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, leaving two nationalist parties unlikely to win a single seat in parliament according to preliminary results.

"The president promised to oversee honest elections. He didn't keep his word," one opposition candidate, Ryskeldi Mombekov, told a crowd of around 5,000 people, calling on the Central Election Commission to cancel the vote "in the next 24 hours".

His party, Ata Meken, had been confident of entering parliament but looked far off the seven percent threshold needed for a seat.

Mombekov said "200 horsemen" -- regular features of protests in the mountainous country -- were en route from a village outside the capital.

The Ala-Too square in Bishkek has been the site of two revolutions that overthrew authoritarian presidents in 2005 and 2010, but the former Soviet country has enjoyed relative stability for the last decade.

Moscow's dominant strategic position in Kyrgyzstan -- a landlocked country bordering China -- was not seen as being under threat regardless of the outcome of the vote.

Russia has a military base in the country and is a destination for hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz migrants.

Kyrgyzstan's dependence on China also appears likely to grow, with Jeenbekov recently asking Beijing to extend repayment periods for $1.8 billion owed to China's Exim bank -- over 40 percent of the country's total external debt -- to offset the economic pain of the coronavirus pandemic.

- 'Serious concern' -

As the opposition crowd grew larger through Monday and called for Jeenbekov to resign, images on social media showed anti-riot vehicles pass close to Ala-Too square in an indication of a possible crackdown.

Thomas Boserup, head of the election observation mission organised by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said in a briefing that the vote was "generally well-organised", but that vote-buying accusations were "a serious concern".

The leading parties were Birimdik and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan, two factions that favour deeper integration with Moscow's Eurasian Union trade bloc. They scooped a quarter of the vote each according to the preliminary count.

Birimdik includes the president's younger brother Asylbek Jeenbekov, while Mekenim Kyrgyzstan is seen as a vehicle for the interests of the powerful Matraimov family.

The family's figurehead is Rayimbek Matraimov, a former customs official who was the target of anti-corruption protests last year and is believed to have helped finance Jeenbekov's successful presidential campaign in 2017.

A third party with close ties to the presidency, the Kyrgyzstan party, also looked on track to enter parliament. It is led by wealthy businessmen including a vodka magnate from the north of the country.