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Page last updated at 22:57 GMT, Wednesday, 22 July 2009 23:57 UK

Kyrgyz vote amid longstanding problems

By Rayhan Demytrie
BBC News, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Bakiyev campaign poster
Billboards across Kyrgyzstan exhort voters to choose President Bakiyev

"Together We Can" is Almazbek Atambayev's presidential campaign slogan.

The former prime minister and main opposition candidate, Mr Atambayev is hoping an Obama-style message will carry him through to victory in Thursday's elections.

He promises to end the governance of one family and fight the country's high level of corruption.

Outspoken politician Bakyt Beshimov, Mr Atambayev's campaign chief, sifts through the "Together We Can" printed T-shirts, flags, bandanas and stickers.

He sounds convinced the Kyrgyz public will back them. "Our concept is to show that together, united we can win," he says.

But he faces an extremely tough battle. Six candidates are competing for the presidency on 23 July, including Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the incumbent leader.

The brains behind his campaign have chosen not to feature Mr Bakiyev's picture. Instead ordinary citizens smile from the billboards with the simple captions "Bakiyev is our president" or "Bakiyev is good".

PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES
Kurmanbek Bakiyev - the incumbent leader
Almazbek Atambayev - former prime minister and the main opposition candidate
Temir Sariyev - who broke off from the coalition of opposition parties to run for president
Zhenishbek Nazaraliyev - a celebrity doctor who, if elected, promises to legalise opium cultivation
Toktaim Umetalieva - a female Krygyz activist
Nurlan Motuyev - an entrepreneur allegedly linked to a coal-mining scandal

But even though his picture is not on display, Mr Bakiyev is still the most visible candidate - his campaign billboards significantly outnumber the rest of the contenders.

Two days prior to the poll, a concert featuring local and Russian pop stars was held in Bishkek's largest stadium in support of Mr Bakiyev's candidacy.

A recent report published by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe's election observers says that broadcast coverage of opposition campaigns has been limited, and state media has been predominantly focusing on the activities of President Bakiyev "both as candidate and president".

Grip on power

The last presidential elections in impoverished Kyrgyzstan took place four years ago.

In March 2005, the country underwent a popular uprising which became known as the Tulip Revolution. Then president Askar Akayev was forced to flee the country.

Almazbek Atambayev, July 2009
Opposition leader Almazbek Atambayev says unity is key

Mr Bakiyev was elected the following July with an overwhelming 89% of the popular vote.

But despite this mandate, he has still faced some tough challenges - notably when opposition politicians sought to combine their efforts to him bring down earlier this year.

The United People's Movement (UPM), a coalition of opposition parties, attempted to stage mass protests, accusing him of squandering the opportunity given to him by the Kyrgyz people.

They demanded electoral reforms and an end to the harassment of opposition members, threatening to hold more rallies if their demands not met.

But in the event, turnout was poor and Mr Bakiyev lived to fight another day.

Base race

In his inaugural speech four years ago, Mr Bakiyev pledged to fight corruption and nepotism.

Kyrgyzstan, he said, will not become a place for the fulfilment of someone else's geopolitical interests - particularly those of the US and Russia.

US ceremony at Manas, 15 June, 2009
A new deal lets American forces stay at Manas airbase

Now the country is perhaps best known for precisely that - with debate centring on the only US military base in Central Asia, which Kyrgyzstan announced in February that it would shut.

Manas, as the base is known, is the main transit hub for tens of thousands of US and Nato forces on their way in and out of Afghanistan. The decision to close the base came just as US President Barack Obama signalled that the US would double its number of troops in Afghanistan.

On the same day that President Bakiyev made his decision public, Russia offered Kyrgyzstan almost $2bn (£1.2bn) in loans, and a $300m grant.

In June parliament voted in favour of a new deal allowing the Americans to stay, and just in the past week a high level Russian delegation has visited Kyrgyzstan to discuss the expansion of its military presence by opening a second base in the country.

Cracking down on dissent

Another problem facing Kyrgyzstan at the moment is that, since the beginning of this year, there have been a series of attacks on independent journalists.

Kyrgyzstan

In the latest incident, just two weeks before the election, Almaz Tashiev - who worked for the opposition Agym newspaper - died following surgery for injuries sustained after he was beaten by police officers in the town of Nookat.

The interior ministry has promised to investigate the case and "severely punish" those found guilty. In an unprecedented move, the authorities have dismissed the head of Nookat's police and several of his deputies.

In March, a reporter from the opposition newspaper Reporter Bishkek was also brutally attacked - it has been reported that he can no longer write.

Bakyt Beshimov, back at his campaign headquarters, says the abuses are continuing.

"There was a journalist in my office just now; she came to say that the editor of her newspaper has been threatened for publishing an interview with our candidate," says Beshimov.

It remains to be seen how far journalists dare report this coming election.



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