Kyrgyzstan faced a key test of its commitment to democracy in parliamentary elections yesterday amid tension over the exclusion of a number of opposition figures and prominent lawmakers in the former Soviet republic.
Many disgruntled voters in the country of 5 million were expected to choose the option of voting against all candidates, a move that could force a second round and underline complaints that President Askar Akayev, once lauded as the most progressive leader in Central Asia, is clamping down on opposition.
The elections were also being watched closely due to speculation that rising anger could make the mountainous country ripe for an outpouring of mass discontent like the "Rose Revolution" protests in Georgia in 2003 and the massive demonstrations in Ukraine dubbed the "Orange Revolution" following last year's fraudulent presidential election in that country.
Akayev has also accused Kyrgyzstan's opposition of disrespecting the law and trying to launch a revolution with the help of foreign trainers. Those accusations echo Russian complaints that US and other Western groups fomented political change in Ukraine and Georgia.
The opposition gave no indication of mass organizing efforts this week and one key opposition leader, Roza Otunbayeva, has said no revolution-type scenario was being contemplated.
Nonetheless, thousands of demonstrators blocked two key highways for several days over the past week to protest the exclusion of several prominent opposition figures from the ballot.
The roadblocks were removed by Saturday, but the disqualified politicians said they would ask their supporters to express their dissatisfaction by voting against all candidates.
Kyrgyzstan, like many other former Soviet states, allows voters to choose the option of voting against all candidates in a race. If a majority of voters take that course in a particular district, a second round would have to be held.
Voting in one of the districts where protests broke out was postponed until March 13. Central Election Commission spokeswoman Nina Mukhina said the postponement was necessary because the roadblocks prevented ballots from being delivered on time.
An early-morning voter in the capital Bishkek said she respected the protesters' actions as "one of the lessons of democracy."
"Opposition people are not enemies of the people. They have the right to exist," said the woman, who gave her name only as Aigul.
Several aspiring opposition candidates, including Otunbayeva, were denied registration because their recent service as diplomats meant they could not meet the requirement that a candidate be a resident of Kyrgyzstan for the previous five years. Otunbayeva wanted to run in the district where Akayev's daughter Bermet is running; the president's son is seeking a seat in another district.
Opposition groups have also complained that authorities have prevented rallies and say state television has denied coverage of their positions.
The election is to choose all 75 members of the single-chamber Jogorku Kenesh, which is being reconfigured from a 105-member bicameral legislature. All seats are being directly elected.
The changes were approved in a 2003 referendum pushed by Akayev -- a move critics said was an attempt to weaken opposition parties. Although Akayev promoted political and economic reforms in the 1990s, in recent years he has appeared to be clamping down on opposition.