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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 July, 2005, 22:54 GMT 23:54 UK
Kyrgyz poll key test for transition
By Ian MacWilliam
BBC, Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan is heading for presidential elections on 10 July with some trepidation.

This scenic and usually placid Central Asian nation has unexpectedly become a testing ground for what could be a major shift in Central Asia's political landscape.

When President Askar Akayev fled into exile in the face of a massive demonstration in March, Kyrgyzstan became the first ex-Soviet Central Asian republic to experience a relatively peaceful transition of power.

A Kyrgyz woman cooks food outside a traditional Kyrgyz dwelling - a yurt by a pass in Kuzart some 300 kilometres from Bishkek, 05 July 2005.
Kyrgyzstan was a relatively tranquil place until March
In most of these republics the current president has been in power since independence 14 years ago, inheriting his position from the previous communist party structure.

The interim government which took power in Bishkek, led by the former opposition leader, Kurmanbek Bakiev, has come in for some criticism since then.

Most Kyrgyz now hope the upcoming presidential elections on 10 July will end the current political instability. They want the new government to move forward with economic reforms and action to reduce widespread corruption.

Samai, a Bishkek doctor, voices the concerns of many.

"We want the situation to stabilise. We want higher salaries. I want my child to live in a rich, peaceful, happy country. That's what we hope for, but of course we don't believe 100% that it will happen.

"It's unrealistic to expect that in two months everything will change and everyone will suddenly become honest," she said.

Map of Kyrgyzstan

Six candidates have successfully put themselves forward for election. By far the leading candidate is the acting president himself, Mr Bakiev - not entirely surprising in the post-Soviet region, where there is still a strong tradition of voting for the incumbent.

Many people remark that there is really no choice, since the others are unknown politicians with little national standing.

One candidate slightly better known than the others is the country's ombudsman, Tursunbay Bakir uulu, generally seen as a sensible liberal figure. There is one woman candidate, Toktaim Umetaliyeva.

Fear of more political protests and chaos has in fact reduced the electorate's choice.

"There's no alternative to Bakiev," said Irina Alexandrovna, an accountant in central Bishkek.

"Our shop was looted in the chaos after Akayev fled. Now we've had enough of that and we need stability. Of course he'll use government resources in his campaign, but I'll close my eyes to that. What we must have is stability."

Running mates

Another popular former opposition leader, Felix Kulov, had intended to run against Mr Bakiev. Mr Kulov is from the north of Kyrgyzstan, near Bishkek, while Mr Bakiev is a southerner, from the region where the anti-Akayev protest movement began.

Many Kyrgyz worried that a contest between the two would exacerbate regional tensions in the country, so when these two leading contenders agreed to run as a team there was widespread relief.

The deal is that if Mr Bakiev is elected, he will appoint Mr Kulov as prime minister.

This arrangement may satisfy the two men initially.

But after the elections, the government is expected to consider constitutional reforms which would transfer some presidential powers to the prime minister and parliament. The way thus still lies open for a potential power struggle between the two rivals.

The presidential election campaign can only be described as lacklustre. The capital has some election posters, the most prominent being the acting president's.

Kyrgyz people push on the gate of the government building fence in Bishkek, 17 June 2005.
The 17 June protest illustrated the fragility of the new status quo
Indeed, with most people assuming that Mr Bakiev will win, the government is increasingly concerned about the "apathy vote". A candidate must poll 50% of the vote to avoid a second round. Voting hours have now been extended to help ensure a higher turnout.

Most campaigning is carried out through the media. In the disputed parliamentary elections which prompted the anti-Akayev protest movement, international election monitors said that state-controlled television and newspapers clearly favoured government-backed candidates, seriously compromising the fairness of the electoral campaign.

That is less of a problem under the current interim leadership, who have told the state media to be more objective.

"It's very noticeable that they're not supporting the government," said Nicolas Ebnother, director in Kyrgyzstan of the US-funded media-training organisation, Internews.

"I wouldn't say they're entirely objective, but they're more balanced," he said.

Even so, with Mr Bakiev still the acting president and the other candidates being so low-profile, inevitably he appears on television more than his rivals.

The greatest worry is political violence.

Bishkek and other towns have been unsettled by a wave of protests since Mr Akayev's overthrow.

While most protests have been peaceful, a few have turned violent, sometimes after the appearance of groups of young men, usually described as "sportsmen".

These are thought to be gangs of youths brought in by unscrupulous politicians or would-be politicians with an interest in unsettling the government.

Dangerous mix

The growing involvement of rich businessmen looking for a way into politics is sometimes blamed for this new rowdiness.

The recent contract killing of one businessman MP in broad daylight in Bishkek, and an apparent attempt on the life of another are signs of where this can lead.

Kyrgyz police officers train with a French gendarme-instructor in Bishkek 20 June 2005.
Kyrgyzstan is steeling itself for more unrest
For Kyrgyzstan's large minority of ethnic Russians, political chaos is a particular worry.

Ethnic tensions are rarely a problem among the tolerant Kyrgyz, but anonymous leaflets have once more appeared in Bishkek, causing some disquiet.

Some leaflets distributed in residential areas of the capital are reported to have warned Russians to "Go away to Russia before you are disembowelled like lambs!"

In some ways, Kyrgyzstan has long been Central Asia's democratic testing ground.

Hailed in the early 1990s as an island of democracy in a sea of authoritarian states, this mountainous republic went into reverse in the later 1990s as President Akayev consolidated his position.

Now it is blazing the trail once again.

The upcoming elections could potentially be the most open and democratic in Central Asia's history, but the lawless undercurrents revealed by recent events could still make Kyrgyzstan's continuing transformation very chaotic indeed.


SEE ALSO:
Q&A: Kyrgyzstan votes
08 Jul 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Kurmanbek Bakiev
07 Jul 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Violence dents Kyrgyz poll hopes
22 Jun 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Kyrgyz forces break up protests
17 Jun 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Kyrgyz MP shot dead in Bishkek
10 Jun 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Protesters clash at Kyrgyz court
01 Jun 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Kyrgyzstan's new leaders
17 Jun 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Kyrgyz presidential race narrows
13 May 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Kyrgyzstan faces post-Akayev future
04 Apr 05 |  Asia-Pacific


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