Voting has begun in Kyrgyzstan in an election that sees a total of 11 candidates, including one female, vying to replace President Almazbek Atambaev, who is constitutionally barred from running for a second consecutive six-year term.
While dirty tricks, arrests, and the alleged use of “administrative resources” have cast a pall over the campaign, the vote on October 15 is likely to solidify Kyrgyzstan’s credentials as an island of democracy in the region’s authoritarian sea. Kyrgyzstan is the only Central Asian country that has had more than two presidents since the 1991 Soviet collapse.
The three leading contenders -- Omurbek Babanov, Temir Sariev, and Sooronbai Jeenbekov -- were all prime ministers during Atambaev's term in office, raising expectations of policy continuity in a country that has to balance the often-competing interests between neighbors Russia and China.
“I am proud of my freedom-loving people who have staged two national revolutions against dictatorial regimes over the last 12 years and have proven that people are the only possible source of power in the Kyrgyz Republic,” Atambaev said during the campaign.
Atambaev said that Kyrgyzstan had achieved peace and stability in recent years and claimed it is "the first and only country in post-Soviet Central Asia with a parliamentary democracy.”
Having battled through two revolutions and several noisy election campaigns, the 6 million mainly Muslim citizens of this mountainous former Soviet republic have become an anomaly among the region's five ex-Soviet states: the most democratic country in a predominantly authoritarian region.
While most elections in the region see incumbents garner at least 90 percent of the vote, Kyrgyzstan’s ballot is turning into a cliffhanger that is too close to call.
Jeenbekov, a 58-year-old political ally of Atambaev, has used his political leverage and support from the incumbent to wage a heated battle with 47-year-old Babanov, a wealthy entrepreneur and former oil trader from the north.
Neither has been able to gain a strong upper hand, with a September poll by the Western-backed NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society giving Jeenbekov 41 percent to about 39 percent for Babanov.
However, Babanov told reporters after casting his ballot in Bishkek that he is "absolutely confident" he will become Kyrgyzstan’s next president.
If no candidate wins a majority of votes in the first round, a runoff between the top two vote getters will be held.
“For elections in Kyrgyzstan, one must expect the unexpected,” according to Michal Romanowski, an expert in Eurasian affairs at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“Citizens have proved to those in power that in the end they call the shots and authorities will be held accountable for their actions. The attitude promotes political pluralism and a substitute for real electoral competition,” he said.
The campaign has been littered with accusations of dirty tricks and outright corruption, underlying the instability that led to the ouster of two leaders through revolutions in 2005 and 2010.
Government critics say the campaign has been marred by a criminal conviction handed down to opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party leader Omurbek Tekebaev in August after a trial his backers say was politically motivated.
Meanwhile, the government has accused Babanov of trying to buy votes, and late last month it detained one of his supporters, saying there were efforts to plot a coup during the election.
Babanov has denied the accusations and in turn alleges the government has used “administrative resources” against his candidacy and in favor of Jeenbekov.
While Kyrgyzstan's key ally Russia has stayed neutral, neighboring Kazakhstan's autocratic President Nursultan Nazarbaev made a surprise appearance in the campaign in September by appearing to endorse Babanov.
That sparked a strong rebuke from Atambaev, who blasted Nazarbaev in a speech lauding his country's democratic principles and accusing Kazakhstan of being ruled by corrupt "sultans."
In a sign of building tensions and in a thinly veiled criticism of Babanov on October 13, Atambaev also called an unnamed leading contender in the elections a “flunky” of a foreign country.
Kazakhstan’s government called the remarks "unacceptable" and introduced tighter controls this week on the Kyrgyz border, citing security concerns.