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Kyrgyz Elections Go Into Runoffs

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- Early results Monday from Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary elections showed more than half the races heading for runoffs, leaving the political future unsettled for the country.

The Sunday voting took place amid tensions over the barring of some key opposition figures and prominent politicians as candidates, in a country once seen as an island of democracy in Central Asia.

Opposition forces have suggested that the vote would be manipulated by supporters of President Askar Akayev to ensure a compliant parliament that would amend the constitution to allow him to run for a third term next October. The current constitution bars that.

Akayev denied that he wanted another term, saying after voting, "I have not had, and do not have, intentions to change the constitution."

Incomplete preliminary results from the races for 75 parliament seats indicated that no candidate in more than 40 of them got the absolute majority necessary for a first-round win; that would force runoffs to be held in two weeks.

Among the undecided races was the district where Akayev's daughter Bermet was running; she won about 45 percent of the vote. Akayev's son Aidar was shown as the overwhelming victor in another district, which is his father's home district.

Foreign observers said the election fell short of international standards, though the balloting was more competitive than in past votes.

The poll was "undermined by vote buying, de-registration of candidates, interference with media and a worryingly low confidence in judicial and electoral institutions on the part of voters and candidates," said Kimmo Kiljunen, head of the observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"There have been major problems with press freedom. ... This is a very, very serious problem, and that is one of the bases why we are not happy with the election environment in this country," he said in a statement.

A local nongovernmental organization, the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, said Monday that it "cannot regard the parliamentary election as honest and just," citing complaints including improper constitution of local election commissions and a lack of coverage of opposition candidates by state-run or state-influenced broadcasters and newspapers.

In one dispute, prominent opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva was excluded from running; she wanted to contest the seat in Akayev's daughter's district. A former ambassador to the United States and UN envoy in Georgia, she was disqualified under a law that says candidates must have resided in Kyrgyzstan for the previous five years.

"We believe the pre-election process wasn't transparent. Pro-government candidates had huge advantages," such as biased coverage in state-run or state-influenced media, Otunbayeva said.

Several other one-time diplomats also were disqualified and critics say Akayev has used diplomatic postings as a way of marginalizing opponents.

All 75 seats in the single-chamber Jogorku Kenesh are directly elected. Previously the parliament was a 105-seat bicameral legislature that included seats that were distributed proportionately to a party's nationwide vote tally.

The voting was shadowed by tensions that peaked when thousands of demonstrators blocked two key highways for several days last week to protest the exclusion of aspiring candidates.

The roadblocks were removed by Saturday, but in one of the districts where the protests broke out, some 66 percent of the voters cast their ballots against all candidates; that will force a new vote and it is possible the disqualified candidates could be on the new ballot. Voting was postponed until March 13 in the other district that had been hit by protests.

About 50 opposition supporters rallied in Bishkek at midday Monday and scuffles broke out with government supporters who tried to tear up their signs.

Speculation has grown that Kyrgyzstan is ripe for an outpouring of mass discontent like the Rose Revolution protests in Georgia in 2003 and the massive Orange Revolution demonstrations in Ukraine following last year's fraudulent presidential election.

Akayev has accused Kyrgyzstan's opposition of disrespecting the law and trying to start a revolution with the help of foreign trainers. Those accusations echo Russian complaints that U.S. and other Western groups fomented political change in Ukraine and Georgia.

On Sunday, the Foreign Ministry sharply criticized U.S. Ambassador Stephen Young over a recent newspaper interview quoting him as saying that complications in democratic development could affect bilateral relations.

The ministry called the comments an unacceptable "attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of the country."

(The Moscow Times 01.iii.05)

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