Kyrgyz election front-runner set for crushing win

PETER LEONARD - Associated Press
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Front-runner Almazbek Atambayev casts his ballot at a polling station during the presidential election in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011. Voters in the turbulent Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan headed to polling stations Sunday to cast their ballots in the presidential election that could set a democratic precedent for the region. (AP Photo/Vladimir Voronin)

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — The front-runner in Kyrgyzstan's presidential election looked set for an unexpectedly crushing victory early Monday, prompting bitter accusations of fraud in a vote that was supposed to put the country on a firmer footing after an uprising last year overthrew the government.

With 88 percent of precincts counted, businessman and former prime minister Almazbek Atambayev was easily leading the field with 63 percent of the vote in the former Soviet Central Asian nation. The winner has to get at least 50 percent of the ballots cast to claim victory in one round, and a run-off had been widely anticipated.

Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished and mainly Muslim 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.

It remains to be seen if the defeated presidential candidates will pursue their complaints through legal channels or summon supporters to the streets. The specter of a new wave of protests could cause profound anxiety in a country still unstable due to the political and ethnic violence of recent years.

The Kyrgyz overthrew authoritarian President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010 amid anger over corruption and stagnating living standards. Sunday's election had been touted as the culmination of a movement for political reform away from the strong authoritarian model that has prevailed in the country since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Over the past two decades, elections had been purely formal exercises designed to lend a threadbare veil of legitimacy to the ruling elite. Kyrgyzstan last year adopted a new Constitution that saw the powers of the presidency watered down in favor of a more powerful parliament.

Many had hoped this election would be the first peaceful transition of power in the economically struggling nation's history. The two presidents that ruled the country over the first two decades of its independence, Bakiyev and Askar Akayev, were both unseated in public uprisings.

International observers had largely praised the run-up to the elections, but some complained on the night of the vote of irregularities in the counting process and said the scale of Atambayev's apparent win indicated he may have benefited from reliance on state resources.

"It seems that the numbers in some areas bears an impact of administrative resources," an international observer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment before an official observation report is issued Monday afternoon.

Outgoing President Roza Otunbayeva, who has been running the country as interim leader since April 2010, earned international plaudits by agreeing to step down to make way for the election winner.

Atambayev's most vigorous opponents were two popular nationalist politicians — Kamchibek Tashiyev and Adakhan Madumarov.

As of early Monday, they appeared to have performed less impressively than many had expected, both capturing less than 15 percent of the vote with only one-tenth of the ballots left to count. None of the other 13 candidates running looked set to earn even 1 percent of the vote.

Atambayev had easily the best-funded campaign and enjoyed significant public exposure by serving as prime minister until last month. In that capacity, he had raised state salaries and increased pensions, both policies that doubtless earned him significant political capital.

Under the new constitution, Atamabayev will as the new president be limited to a single six-year term. He has hinted that the constitution may face further adjustments, but has offered no specific details.

But as polls were closing Sunday evening, a group of presidential candidates, including Madumarov, complained to journalists that tens of thousands of people had been excluded from the electoral register. Other alleged violations included repeat voting and ballot box stuffing.

"We are willing to adopt all legal methods in order to protect our votes," said Madumarov, who did not rule out street action as a means of protesting the outcome of the election.

Madumarov urged authorities to form a commission made up of party officials and candidates' representatives to investigate the alleged violations.

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 AP 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, a seasoned diplomat who served as ambassador in Washington and London, said she was certain the election was being 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 rules or unlawfully are unfounded," she said.


Leila Saralayeva contributed to this report.