BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — Voters in the turbulent Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan cast their ballots Sunday in a presidential election that could set a democratic example for authoritarian neighbors.
While international observers have hailed the wide range of candidates on offer and recent improvements to electoral legislation, there are concerns that the vote could ignite interregional tensions.
Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished nation of around 5 million people on China's western fringes, is home to both U.S. and Russian military air bases, making its fortunes the subject of lively international interest.
Outgoing President Roza Otunbayeva, a seasoned diplomat who served as ambassador in Washington and London and has been running the country as interim leader since 2010, will step down later this year to make way for the election winner. That sets the stage for the first peaceful transition of power in this economically struggling ex-Soviet nation's history.
The election pitted front-runner Almazbek Atambayev against two popular nationalist politicians — Kamchibek Tashiyev and Adakhan Madumarov. In the likely event that nobody garners more than 50 percent of the ballots, a runoff will have to be held within a month between the two top vote-getters.
Atambayev, who had the best-funded campaign and enjoyed significant public exposure by serving as prime minister until last month, voiced hope for an outright victory.
"I have bright hopes, it is time for our country to live, achieve harmony and flourish. People are tired of political battles and meetings," he said after voting.
Election officials said after polls closed that the turnout was 36.7 percent of the nation's 3 million eligible voters.
The election is the culmination of a movement for political reform away from the strong authoritarian model that has prevailed in the country since independence in 1991.
Over the past two decades, elections have been purely formal exercises designed to lend a threadbare veil of legitimacy to the ruling elite. Former strongman leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev and his predecessor, mathematician Askar Akayev, left office only after being literally chased out of by angry mobs.
Speaking after casting her ballot at a music college in the capital, Bishkek, Otunbayeva said the election would consolidate the parliamentary system adopted under constitutional reforms approved last year.
"What is important is that we have chosen parliamentary governance in our country," Otunbayeva told The Associated Press, speaking in English. "People will choose the route of freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of assembly."
Douglas Wake, deputy head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's election monitoring arm, lauded reforms to the electoral system and the broad choice of candidates on offers.
"It is a notable fact that both for Kyrgyzstan and for this region, we have a really active campaign with a large number of candidates who are really offering a competitive choice to voters," he said.
While the election has been praised by many as a victory for democracy, others are concerned that the vote could lay bare historic divisions between the north and south of the country. Atambayev's following is mainly in the north, while his nationalist opponents' main base of support is in the largely rural south.
Southern Kyrgyzstan, which lies along a major route for heroin trafficked northward from nearby Afghanistan, has seen waves of political unrest over the past year and was the site of ethnic clashes last summer in which hundreds of people, mainly minority ethnic Uzbeks, were killed.
Madumarov and Tashiyev have repeatedly leveled accusations of possible vote-rigging ahead of the election.
"The main thing is that there should be no evidence of fraud and the election results must not be falsified," Madumarov said Sunday.
International observers said they were unable to comment on the conduct of voting, but there were scattered media reports of voting violations throughout the day.
At a polling station in the Kyrgyz National University in Bishkek, several teachers were seen by an Associated Press reporter calling their students by telephone to urge them to vote. Large crowds of students were seen waiting in line shortly after polls opened to cast their ballot.
University teacher Izanat Gasanova, 30, denied she was forcing students to vote for any particular candidate.
"This is their personal choice, nobody is forcing them," said Gasanova, who said she was voting for Atambayev.
Earlier in the day, Otunbayeva said that she was certain the election would be held in full compliance with the law.
"Any claims that administrative resources have been deployed or that the election is not being held according to the rule or unlawfully are unfounded," she said.
Associated Press writer Leila Saralayeva contributed to this report.