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Kyrgyzstan to Elect New President

In Kyrgyzstan Sunday, voters will choose a successor to former President Askar Akayev, who was ousted during violent protests in March. The expected frontrunner is acting President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, a former prime minister who played a key role in the opposition.

The day before the critical election, residents of the capital were just trying to beat the heat and attend to daily chores. Saturday found many purchasing basic goods at a cluster of tented stalls in the city center. Others were taking their children for a dip in the public fountains.

Local news reports warn of the possibility of mass runs on food stores ahead of election day by people fearing a possible repeat of the March violence and looting that forced Mr. Akayev to flee the country. The three days of unrest cost Kyrgyz business owners an estimated $100 million.

As a result, over 10,000 vendors in the capital, Bishkek, have formed armed, self-defense units in the event of any unrest during the election and its aftermath. Militia sources are quoted as saying they will be prepared to restore order swiftly, if necessary.

Carpet seller Fikrit Ozden, who lost one store entirely to the looting and subsequent fires, says his remaining store will be open for business on election day.

"For a month now, we can feel that there is a state now in Kyrgyzstan, because [the] soldiers and military are working," he said. "The city is under control, and other cities are under control. Sometimes, [it's] maybe, not so professional but, still, people can feel there is a state now."

Mr. Ozden says he can only hope things will be better, once a new government comes to power.

Outside the presidential palace, which stone-throwing citizens stormed in March, protesting rampant poverty and official corruption, troops patrol the outer and inner perimeter in pairs. In a nearby park, hundreds of others stand at the ready as back-up.

Most people VOA spoke with said they were not afraid to vote Sunday and that they see no reason to believe there will be any further trouble. This 55-year-old technical engineer says she even rescheduled her vacation, in order to be in the capital this weekend to vote.

The woman says she would like the new government to rule just like Askar Akayev did, because, she says, during his time, there was peace and stability in Kyrgyzstan.

But 21-year-old computer technology student, Ashard, says he hopes the new government will create more jobs, so young people will no longer need to leave Kyrgyzstan, in order to make a better future.

Nearly 1,000 international observers will monitor polling stations across the country on election day for possible violations.

Local observers have expressed concern that, with the summer agricultural season, many people will remain in the fields to work, rather than come out to vote, especially as many people say they see the vote as already pre-determined.

Mr. Bakiyev, the acting president, is favored to win. A southerner, he has gained the support of Felix Kulov, a former security services chief who was an opponent of ousted President Akayev. Mr. Kulov is a northerner, and there was concern that if he had chosen to run against Mr. Bakiyev, that could have aggravated north-south tensions.

The election will be closely watched by officials in the United States and Russia, which both have interests in Central Asia. The election is also garnering world attention because mostly-Muslim Kyrgyzstan is widely viewed as a possible catalyst for change of government elsewhere in Central Asia.