OSH, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — Polls opened in Kyrgyzstan for parliamentary elections Sunday to choose a new and empowered parliament that the government hopes will usher in a new era of democracy.
The vote comes after an exhausting year of political turbulence and ethnic violence in the south.
Security has been tightened for the vote in the Central Asian nation in a bid to prevent any possible outbreaks of unrest.
Kyrgyzstan, which hosts a strategically vital U.S. air base near Afghanistan, is set to embrace a parliamentary system of governance. This marks a sharp departure from the strongman model exercised under President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted in April amid violent public demonstrations.
Heading to cast his ballot a polling station at the agriculture institute in the southern city of Osh, 49-year old history teacher Ermek Suleimanov said the vote was a momentous 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,” Suleimanov said.
President Roza Otunbayeva said Saturday that the elections will be held in a spirit of fairness and transparency.
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.
Truckloads of police drove into Osh throughout the night, boosting the presence of security forces in the city.
In the ethnic Uzbek suburb of Sharq, a steady flow of voters headed to a local 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 had worried that persisting tensions in the south could discourage many in the minority ethnic Uzbek community from casting their ballot.
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 Uzbek neighborhoods, many of which devastated after being attacked and burned down by Kyrgyz mobs, many were hard at work Sunday rebuilding their homes — a key priority as winter approaches.
Of the 29 parties in the running, around half a dozen are expected to gain seats. No party is likely to win much more than 15 percent of the vote, meaning a coalition government is unavoidable.
The arrangement was specifically designed from the outset to prevent any one party or leader acquiring a monopoly on power.
“For the first time, we have a wide choice of parties and candidates. Now nobody will be able to grab power,” 22-year old student Dinara Madumarova said at a polling station in the capital, Bishkek.
For some, however, a parliamentary system is a guarantee only of more chaos.
“With this parliament, it is going to be an even bigger mess. Everyone will try to grab what they can for themselves,” said Adakhan Satybaldiyev, 65.
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.
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.