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Kyrgyz Voters Cast Ballots for New President

Kyrgyz woman casts her ballot at a polling station the village of Gornaya Mayevka
Nearly three-million voters in Kyrgyzstan are casting ballots to elect a new president to replace Askar Akayev, who fled to Russia in March amid violent street protests. Many voters express the hope that their ballot will bring peace and stability to Kyrgyzstan, after several months of political instability.

Voters are being asked to choose from among six candidates for president, but the front-runner heading into the race is acting president Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Speaking to reporters after casting his ballot, Mr. Bakiyev said he guarantees the elections will be free and fair, and will meet all international standards for democratic elections.

Mr. Bakiyev is running in tandem with popular opposition politician Felix Kulov, whom he has pledged to name as his prime minister if he secures a win.

Forty-six-year-old Kyrgyz resident Nurgilla told VOA she was not so much voting for acting President Bakiyev, a southerner and former prime minister, as she was voting for Felix Kulov, who is from the north and is a former opponent of ousted President Askar Akayev.

But Nurgilla, like so many other voters, said she is first and foremost voting for stability. Kyrgyzstan must not be left behind, she said.

Election officials have extended voting hours at polling stations by four hours in order to increase the chances that everyone who wants to vote will be able to do so.

Local officials have expressed concern that with the summer harvest season, many people in the north of the country will remain in the fields to work, rather than turn out to vote.

The concern over turn out is so great that in the days leading up to the election, some officials were suggesting that a re-run election may have to be held. But by mid-afternoon, central election officials said voting was proceeding normally, and that no immediate violations or incidents were reported.

Half-way through voting hours, only one district, Jalalabad in the south, has surpassed the 50 percent turn-out mark needed to make the election valid. That is the home region of acting President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Voting is also brisk in Osh city and Osh oblast, where the popular uprising of March got its start.

Nearly 1,000 observers are fanned out across mostly-Muslim Kyrgyzstan to monitor the vote. Polls are expected to close at 21:00 hours local time Sunday, with the vote count starting shortly thereafter and continuing overnight.

First results are expected to be announced on Monday.