Local elections in Kyrgyzstan offer a Central Asian rarity -- a chance for opponents of the ruling party to regain ground lost in previous elections.
President Kurmanbek Bakiev has called for the elections to be open and honest. But veteran opposition leaders warn that they have heard such calls in the past, and say they have been disappointed.
"No one believes that the elections will be conducted fairly -- only the Bakievs can say that," Topchubek Turgunaliev, head of the Erkindik Party, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. "Last year they said twice that 'the December 16 elections were the fairest [in history] and they met all the democratic standards.' ... As long as [Bakiev and his allies] are in power, there can be no talk of fair elections."
A newly formed pro-presidential party dominated parliamentary elections in December that were improved but deeply flawed, by international standards. Kyrgyzstan's numerous opposition parties were almost shut out by Ak Jol, which won 71 of the 90 legislative contests soon after it was formed with President Bakiev's backing. The Communist Party, another pro-presidential party, took eight of the remaining seats, leaving only the Social Democratic Party to represent the opposition with 11 seats.
With a presidential election still two years away and the next parliamentary elections set for 2012, an increased presence on a local level could provide a foothold for an eventual challenge to Bakiev, who rose to power in mid-2005, after the ouster of Askar Akaev on a wave of public discontent that was sparked by flawed elections.
The Kyrgyz opposition appears to be acutely aware of the urgency of its task, and seats on key councils could become battlegrounds for rivals to check Ak Jol's power.
This summer, a town council in the remote Naryn region rejected a presidential nominee for mayor. It was an almost unheard-of step and appeared to signal a newfound willingness to take on the president, and provided a reminder that local councils matter on Kyrgyzstan's rough and tumble political scene.
Osh Governor Aaly Karashev told RFE/RL that "there are no obstacles for any political party" that wants to compete for village- or regional-council seats in his province.
"If anyone running for village or regional office encounters any difficulties," he told RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service listeners recently, "tell me immediately. I will immediately dismiss any official involved in such activities."
More than 15,000 candidates are competing for about half that many seats on 490 local councils across the country.
Skeptics abound who believe that authorities will not resist the temptation to influence some of those contests.
"Our president calls for honest elections every time there is an election," Dinara Oshurakhunova, leader of the NGO coalition For Democracy and Civil Society, told RFE/RL. "The last [elections, in December] he also said, 'conduct these elections transparently and openly.' The president says these things but local bureaucrats will still falsify the results of elections. We see how they fulfill the orders of the president."
Elections prior to the December landslide regularly saw opposition parties and figures occupying as many as one-third of the seats in parliament.
But Bakiev's opponents remain fractured, and have continually sought issues to rekindle the kind of momentum for change that engulfed the country three years ago and ushered in the Tulip Revolution. They appeared to think they had one when the chairwoman of Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission suddenly fled the country on September 26, saying President Bakiev's son, Maksim, had threatened her life.
Leaders of the opposition Ata-Meken Socialist Party, which won the second-highest number of votes in the December voting but was excluded by a new rule setting quotas for votes on a regional basis, seized the moment. On September 27, the party held a press conference at which it showed a video in which Kabilova says she was "subjected to pressure and insult in the form of unquotable words, by Maksim Bakiev, the son of the president of Kyrgyzstan, during the pre-election campaign for the election of deputies of local councils."
Election Commission Chairwoman Kabilova fled a week before the vote.
She said the alleged incident followed a session of the Central Election Commission "devoted to the problems of ensuring the electoral rights" of a close Bakiev ally running for a seat in the capital, Bishkek.
Kabilova remains outside the country, and the president has named a replacement, Damir Lisovskii.
Whatever the merits of the case, the Kabilova incident has brought new focus to these local elections. Previously, such elections were barely noticed by most Kyrgyz voters, their reputation for protracted acts of civil disobedience notwithstanding.
The incident has also served to remind people of December's parliamentary polls, seen by many inside and outside Kyrgyzstan as a major step backward in the country's efforts to institutionalize and cement multiparty democracy. Zeinep Altymyshova of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report