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.

A woman casts her ballot next to a visiting member of a local electoral commission during early voting at the presidential election in the village of Arashan outside Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan October 14, 2017.
A woman casts her ballot next to a visiting member of a local electoral commission during early voting at the presidential election in the village of Arashan outside Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan October 14, 2017. (Reuters)

Voters in ex-Soviet Kyrgyzstan head to the polls on Sunday to choose their next president in an unpredictable election setting the Central Asian country apart from its deeply authoritarian neighbours.

Voting in the toughly fought election begins at 0200 GMT and concludes at 1400 GMT with a split electorate making a second round of voting a strong possibility, according to analysts.

“I am undecided,” Talant Jumabekov, a 20-year-old student at a university in Bishkek said.

“A lot of my friends feel this way. It is our first opportunity to vote for our country’s leader but we don’t know who to vote for.”   

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 intrigue, crackdowns and upheavals. 

His own election in 2011 came on the back of political and ethnic violence the year before that left hundreds dead.

Two main candidates

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 neighbouring 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 favourable coverage in the pro-government media according to monitors.

Atambayev has described him as a friend, while regularly criticising 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.

Smear campaign

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 neighbouring Kazakhstan.

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 said.

Voters, too, are worried about fraud.

“If elections are clean there will be a second round,” said Bishkek pensioner Shakena Omuraliyeva.

“But I fear the government will do everything in its power to make sure its candidate gets more than 50 percent.”

Source: Reuters