- Associated Press - Sunday, October 10, 2010

OSH, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — Voters turned out in force Sunday to choose a new and empowered parliament that the government hopes will usher in a new era of democracy in Kyrgyzstan after two presidents were ousted by street protests.

Kyrgyzstan, which hosts a vital U.S. air base near Afghanistan, is set to embrace a parliamentary system of governance in a vote that has won praise from the United States.

A fair vote among the 29 competing parties and the creation of a strong legislature would set Kyrgyzstan apart from the other former Soviet republics in Central Asia, where power usually is held by authoritarian leaders. A democratic Kyrgyzstan also could be expected to create a sense of unease in the neighboring countries and encourage the development of democratic ideals.

Security has been tightened for the vote in a bid to prevent any possible outbreaks of unrest.

After casting her ballot in the capital, Bishkek, President Roza Otunbayeva said she was confident the vote would proceed without incident.

“The whole election process has been transparent and open, which will deprive troublemakers of the right to whip up political hysteria,” she said.

The vote comes after an exhausting year of political turbulence and ethnic violence in the south. All eyes are on the southern cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad, where violent clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks in June left more than 400 people dead, most of them Uzbeks, and displaced around 400,000 people.

The election marks a sharp departure from the strongman model exercised under President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted in April amid violent public demonstrations over stagnant living standards and corruption.

Mr. Bakiyev came to power in 2005 following street protests known as the “Tulip Revolution.”

Heading to a polling station at the agriculture institute in Osh, 49-year-old history teacher Ermek Suleimanov said the vote was a turning point for the country.

“If, in the past, voting was just a formality, now we will find out who the people really want to lead them,” Mr. Suleimanov said.

Truckloads of police drove into Osh throughout the night before the elections, boosting the presence of security forces in the city.

In the ethnic Uzbek suburb of Sharq, a steady flow of voters headed to a polling station Sunday morning on the site of a school burned down during the riots.

“The elections are going on peacefully. The police are here to make sure everything goes calmly so people can pick a party that will give them peace,” said Lola Shermetova, an ethnic Uzbek campaign worker for the Ar-Namys party, which has campaigned on a law-and-order ticket.

International observers earlier worried that persisting tensions in the south could discourage many in the ethnic Uzbek community from casting their ballot. By the early afternoon, almost one-third of voters had turned out in Osh, indicating lively involvement in the poll.

Speaking in Osh, Janez Lenarcic, who heads the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s election monitoring arm, said he was encouraged by the peaceful conduct of the election.

The risk going forward is that losing parties may refuse to address their electoral grievances through legal channels, but instead take to the streets.

“It is important that (the voter’s) will is reflected in the results, and ultimately it is extremely important that everybody accepts such results,” Mr. Lenarcic said.

Although voter turnout appeared high in Sharq, some were cynical about what real progress the vote could guarantee.

“I don’t trust any of them. Nobody can assure safety,” said Bakhrom Usanov, 34, adding that he chose to spoil his ballot instead of voting.

In the Uzbek neighborhoods that were attacked and burned down by Kyrgyz mobs, many people were hard at work Sunday rebuilding their homes — a key priority as winter approaches.

In a show of Washington’s backing for the vote, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake told Radio Free Europe’s Kyrgyz service that the elections could become a model for the entire region. Last month, President Obama’s administration announced it had earmarked $5 million to help Kyrgyzstan organize its elections.

Of the 29 parties in the running for the 120 seats available, about half a dozen are expected to gain seats. No party is likely to win much more than 15 percent of the vote or can be allotted more than 65 seats, meaning a coalition government is unavoidable.

Under the new system, the parliament will pick a prime minister and play a key role in forming the government. The elections have pitted a group of parties backing the recently amended constitution boosting the power of the legislature against parties that aim to restore the authority of the presidency.

The pro-constitution camps include Ata-Meken and Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, while their most prominent opponents are Ata-Zhurt, which is particularly popular in the south.

Polls show both potential camps are running a close race, although the final makeup of the coalition may be subject to protracted negotiations.

“In Kyrgyzstan, there is a very strong tribal system, and these different clans have yet to learn how to negotiate,” said Bishkek-based political analyst Mars Sariyev. “Reaching a compromise is going be difficult.”

Associated Press writer Yuras Karmanau contributed to this report from Bishkek.

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