BISHKEK: Voters in ex-Soviet Kyrgyzstan went to the polls Sunday to choose their next president in an unpredictable election setting the Central Asian country apart from its deeply authoritarian neighbors, but stoking fears of instability.
Voting in the toughly fought election began at 0200 GMT and will conclude at 1400 GMT with a split electorate making a second round of voting a strong possibility, according to analysts.
As pressure grows on the leading opposition candidate in the race, security services said Sunday said they had arrested a former MP accused of plotting unrest after results are announced, but offered few details.
Many voters were unsure how to respond to the news in a country accustomed to political tumult and intrigue.
“I won’t vote today,” Valeri Kirlilenko, a taxi driver in Bishkek, told AFP on Sunday. “I have heard there will be unrest if one or other candidates lose.”
The journey from uprisings in 2005 and 2010 to a vote that could secure an unprecedented peaceful transfer of power between two elected presidents has not been easy for the landlocked nation of six million.
President Almazbek Atambayev’s six years at the helm of the country, which is dependent on Russia for political support and looks to next-door China for loans and much-needed investment, have been dogged by upheavals and crackdowns.
His own election in 2011 came on the back of political and ethnic violence the year before that left hundreds dead.
Now Atambayev, 61, is stepping down with two main candidates vying to succeed him for a single-term constitutional limit that contrasts sharply with the rule-for-life political culture that exists in neighboring Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.
But he has made it very clear which of the names on the ballot he would like to replace him.
Sooronbai Jeenbekov, 58, a member of the Social Democratic Party Atambayev is most closely associated with, has benefited from favorable coverage in the pro-government media according to monitors.
Atambayev has described him as a friend, while regularly criticizing Jeenbekov’s chief rival, oligarch Omurbek Babanov, 47, who authorities say may have incited ethnic hatred with comments made during a speech on the campaign trail.
The country’s state prosecutor said on Friday it was reviewing comments made by Babanov at a rally in an Uzbek-inhabited region for evidence of inciting racial hatred, accusations his campaign has strongly denied.
The accusations came soon after a political ally of Babanov was arrested on coup-plotting charges and amid a media smear campaign depicting the wealthy candidate as corrupt and beholden to businessmen in neighboring Kazakhstan.
But Babanov said he had “a beautiful mood” after his vote on Sunday and said he was “absolutely confident” he would become the country’s next president.
“I live in a country where every citizen genuinely has the right to choose,” he told journalists.
Regional divisions, enhanced by the country’s mountainous geography, are also destined to play a role in the election with Babanov hailing from the north and Jeenbekov from the south.
“If mishandled, this election could shatter Kyrgyzstan’s facade of democracy. A fragile stability is at stake,” said Deirdre Tynan, Central Asia project director for the International Crisis Group.
“Despite technical progress in how votes are cast on the day, the system remains based on smear campaigns, vote buying, coercion and the use of administrative resources,” Tynan told AFP.
Several voters leaving the busy Bishkek polling station where Babanov cast his vote said they had voted for the oligarch.
“Yes, I cast my vote for him,” said Zamira Mameeva, a 57-year-old woman. “He can create jobs. We need jobs and we need stability,” she told AFP.
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