Kyrgyzstan chose a new parliament Sunday, with some opposition figures and prominent politicians disqualified from the ballot in a country once seen as an island of democracy in former Soviet Central Asia.
President Askar Akayev is prevented by the constitution from seeking a third term, but opposition forces have suggested Sunday’s vote would be manipulated to ensure a compliant parliament that would amend the constitution to allow him to run again.
Akayev denied he wants another term, saying after voting that “I have not had, and do not have, intentions to change the constitution.” The next presidential election is slated for October.
Preliminary results were to be announced Monday. Preliminary nationwide figures showed a turnout of just under 50 percent, the elections commission said. No minimum turnout was necessary to make the voting valid.
Voters were selecting all 75 members of the single-chamber Jogorku Kenesh, which is being reconfigured from a 105-member bicameral legislature for the Central Asian country.
All seats are being directly elected; the old parliament included seats that were distributed proportionately to a party’s nationwide vote tally.
Thousands of demonstrators blocked two key highways for several days over the past week to protest the exclusion of aspiring candidates.
The roadblocks were removed by Saturday, but disqualified candidates in one district said they would ask supporters to express their dissatisfaction by voting against all candidates.
A local non-governmental organization, the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, said its observers saw problems at about a dozen polling stations, mostly irregularities in voting lists. However, there was no immediate clear picture of how voting was conducted nationwide.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe deployed about 200 observers. The group’s assessment will be closely watched by opposition groups who are gearing up for October’s presidential election.
In one dispute, prominent opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva was excluded from running. A former ambassador to the United States and UN envoy in Georgia, she was disqualified under a law that says candidates must have been a resident of 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 -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.
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 demonstrations in Ukraine dubbed the “Orange Revolution” following last year’s fraudulent presidential election in that country.
Akayev has accused Kyrgyzstan’s opposition of disrespecting the law and trying to launch 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 that quoted him as saying that complications in democratic development could affect bilateral relations.
The ministry said it considered the comment unacceptable as “an attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of the country.”
Kyrgyzstan hosts a U.S. air base used for supply flights to Afghanistan. It also is home to a Russian base.
The voting changes were approved in a 2003 referendum pushed by Akayev — a move critics said was an attempt to weaken opposition parties. Although Akayev promoted political and economic reforms in the 1990s, in recent years he has appeared to be clamping down on opposition.
Tensions also were sharpened this week when broadcasts on some frequencies of U.S.-funded Radio Liberty’s Kyrgyz-language service were halted and power was cut to a printing house that produces many of Kyrgyzstan’s independent newspapers.