Kyrgyz voters cast their ballots yesterday to create the first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia, in an election many hope can unite the country only four months after the worst bloodshed in its modern history.
Unique among elections in ex-Soviet Central Asia, voters have no idea which party will win the majority of seats in a new parliament and select a prime minister who will attempt to knit together a country plagued by political and ethnic divisions.
“Our people do not suffer from amnesia. Our people know their history. They will rise quickly to create a parliamentary republic and protect it themselves,” Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva said after casting her vote in a music school in Bishkek.
After nearly two decades of failed authoritarian rule, interim leaders want to empower a prime minister to restore stability in the former Soviet republic, where clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks killed more than 400 people in June.
The US, which operates a military air base in the country to support the war in Afghanistan, has vocally embraced the plan to create the first democracy in a region otherwise ruled by presidential strongmen with an iron grip on power.
Russia, which also has an air base in Kyrgyzstan, is an opponent of the parliamentary model, arguing it could expose the country to more violence or a power grab by Islamist militants as rival factions vie for influence.
Gennady Danilov, 45, was the first to cast his vote at Polling Station No. 1215, a school in the center of Bishkek. He folded his ballot paper, 70cm in length, and dropped it into a glass box adorned with the Kyrgyz national crest.
“I’ve never voted before,” he said. “I’m simply fed up with this shambles. I hope that, this time, things might change for the better.”
Otunbayeva, who came to power after a popular revolt toppled Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April, said about 800 election observers would monitor the vote nationwide. Voters’ thumbs were stamped with indelible ink, a safeguard against multiple voting.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has stationed 40 long-term observers around the country and a further 200 short-term observers arrived for the vote.
“This is a remarkable election so far. We hope this openness and transparency will be reflected on polling day, but there is still a lot of work to be done,” said Morten Hoeglund, special coordinator of the OSCE’s short-term observers.
Twenty-nine parties have registered for the election, of which six were widely expected to attract a large amount of support from Kyrgyzstan’s 2.8 million registered voters — slightly more than half of the country’s total population.
In the southern city of Osh, -epicenter of the June violence, many residents were wary that a fraudulent election could spark another round of clashes.
Parts of the city remain in ruins, with many ethnic Uzbeks living in makeshift tents as they attempt to rebuild houses burned to the ground in the clashes. While some Uzbeks say they will reject the poll, many others said they would vote.
“The new authorities must take into account the mistakes of their predecessors,” said Maksat Kalykulov, 41, an unemployed ethnic Kyrgyz in Osh. “They have to find and punish those behind these events, otherwise there will be new clashes.”