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Kyrgyz Head to Polls to Elect New President

Askar Akayev (File photo)
Voters in Kyrgyzstan are scheduled to go to the polls Sunday to elect a new president, following former President Askar Akayev's violent ouster in March. The mass uprising that led to Mr. Akayev's downfall was sparked by public discontent over a flawed parliamentary poll earlier this year, as well as unease over rampant poverty and official corruption.

A year ago, elections in Kyrgyzstan would have yielded little public interest. But today, the country and it's voters are in the spotlight, as Kyrgyzstan attempts to hold its first free and fair poll, since ousting long-time Soviet-style leader Askar Akayev.

Sunday's election in predominantly-Muslim Kyrgyzstan will also be closely watched as the nation is now widely seen as a possible catalyst for regime change elsewhere in Central Asia.

The alliance of acting President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and popular Dignity Party politician Felix Kulov is widely expected to secure the most votes. The two most popular politicians, hailing from the South and North respectively, formed the coalition in order to secure a win, and to avoid risking dividing the country into two rival regional parts.

In the event of a win, their agreement calls for Mr. Bakiyev to become president and Mr. Kulov to become prime minister a post that may eventually assume greater powers if proposed Constitutional reforms come to pass.

Five other candidates are also running in the race, though they are not expected to pull enough votes to make any real difference on the outcome.

Kumar Bekbolotov is an analyst at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Bishkek. In an interview with VOA, he characterized the pre-election campaign as relatively normal. He says for the first time, candidates had equal access to the media and that the overall political situation in Kyrgyzstan has generally normalized.

According to Mr. Bekbolotov, the main concern surrounding the upcoming presidential poll is whether enough people will turn out to vote in order to make the election valid. Mr. Bekbolotov says the fear surrounding the vote count stems from two factors. "Since many people already think the acting president [Bakiyev] will already become president, they think they don't even need to go to polling stations and it would mean voter turnout would be lower. And another tendency [among] mostly urban people, and those in Bishkek, is I think Bishkek will have [the] highest number of people voting against all - and the Northern regions will also have significant number of people voting against all, because they don't support the acting president," he said.

Analyst Bekbolotov says if no candidate clears the 50 percent mark needed to win outright, a decision will then be made between holding either a second round vote, or entirely new elections. Either way, he says, a failure to secure a first-round win, will spell trouble for Krygyzstan, a country he says must move quickly to solidify new power, or face a vacuum of continued unrest and instability.

Kyrgyz officials have increased security around public buildings ahead of the vote, in the hopes of preventing any possible disruptions to the ballot.

Just one month before the election, a leading Kyrgyz lawmaker and businessman, Zhirgalbek Surabaldiyev, was shot dead close to the main government building in the capital, Bishkek.

In an interview from exile in Moscow days before the vote, former president Akayev accused the United States of organizing his ouster in order to expand its influence in Central Asia.

The Unites States, which maintains a military base in Kyrgyzstan to aid in the U.S.-led anti-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan, denies his charge. U.S. officials say the popular uprising in Kyrgyzstan was triggered by evidence of massive vote fraud and corruption, much like the earlier revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia.