The controversial former mayor of Osh, 44-year-old Melis Myrzakmatov, has finalized his registration to run for reelection next week.
Myrzakmatov, who presided over the southern city during its deadly 2010 clashes, was dismissed from his post last month after participating in an antigovernment demonstration.
He has since seen his party's majority coalition in the Osh city council dwindle into an opposition minority. But that hasn't kept Myrzakmatov from seeking reelection when the 45-member city council votes on January 15.
Registration closed on January 8 for the mayoral races in Kyrgyzstan's two biggest cities, Bishkek and Osh.
A single candidate, Kubanychbek Kulmatov, has been nominated in the capital, where the previous mayor, Isa Omurkulov, resigned amid corruption allegations last month.
The Osh contest, by contrast, is shaping up to be a dynamic two-horse race, with Myrzakmatov facing off against Aitmamat Kadyrbaev, a former first deputy governor of the Osh region.
All three candidates were cleared for election after passing a Kyrgyz-language test, obligatory since 2011, proving that potential authorities, many of whom were educated in Russian, have a clear command of the state language.
Kadyrbaev, 47, was nominated on January 6 by the Zamandash-Sovremennik party and backed by the rest of the city's majority coalition, which includes Ata-Meken (Fatherland), Respublika, Adilettuu Kyrgyzstan, and the Social Democrats of Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev.
Together, the coalition holds 23 of the city council's 45 seats. Nearly all of the remaining 22 seats are held by Myrzakmatov's own Uluttar Birimdigi (Unity of Ethnicities) party, which together with the People's Democratic Party is backing the ex-mayor's nomination.
The distinction is crucial because the council needs only a simple majority to elect a mayor. (City council deputies, in turn, are elected by popular vote.)
The coalition is looking to elect a cooperative candidate who will help direct Osh's 1 million votes toward pro-presidential parties in parliamentary elections next year. Atambaev is seen as eager to eliminate the willful, freethinking Myrzakmatov, who remains popular among Osh residents but has shown little inclination to carry Bishkek's water.
According to deputy Abduwahab Nurbaev, who heads the Adilettuu Kyrgyzstan faction, Kadyrbaev fits the bill. "He knows the problems of the city," he says. "He said that he's going to bring up the issue of social problems and work more in that area. But the main thing is that he said he's going to work together with the deputies. That's what convinced us. The mayor's office is just an executive body -- its job is to fulfill the decisions of the city council."
Elsewhere, however, Kadyrbaev's nomination has met with surprise. Born in the Kara-Suu district of the Osh region, Kadyrbaev is seen as a figure whose political loyalties are deeply rooted in the country's south and who, like Myrzakmatov, harbors close ties to the kleptocratic regime of ousted leader Kurmanbek Bakiev.
Kadyrbaev was a voluble critic of Bakiev's successor, interim leader Roza Otunbaeva, and participated in the pro-Bakiev raid on the Osh regional administration building in May 2010.
Edil Baisalov, Otunbaeva's former chief of staff and the head of the national Aikol El party, believes Kadyrbaev is a poor choice to play Bishkek's bridge-builder between north and south. "To nominate a man who in May 2010 came out against the actions of the interim government, who it's possible to say organized an armed revolt by taking over the regional administration, doesn't say much about our officials," he says. "It's a reasonable question: Can it really be that -- in all of Osh, not to mention the entire country -- there isn't a single other person on whom we could rely as head of the city government?"
The January 15 contests are the first votes under a new law that allows the city governments in Osh and Bishkek to nominate their own mayoral candidates. Previously, mayoral candidates were nominated by the president, with councils casting what was generally seen as a rubber-stamp vote.
The change, signed into law by Atambaev last month, is intended to make the mayoral votes in the country's two key cities more democratic.
Rumors Of Violence
Under the new law, the prime minister is also permitted to nominate mayoral candidates, although the current prime minister, Jantoro Satybaldiev -- who was responsible for dismissing Myrzakmatov on December 5 -- has not exercised his privilege in either race. (Kulmatov, who currently serves as an acting representative in Kyrgyzstan's northern Chui region, was nominated by Atambaev's Social Democrats.)
Satybaldiev, however, did pay a late-December visit to Osh, in a trip interpreted by some as an opportunity to issue private warnings against using the election as a chance to provoke popular unrest.
Rumors of violence were stirred when a newspaper in Belarus -- where Bakiev has been living since his ouster -- published an unsourced prediction that street riots would break out in Osh on the final day of registration, January 8.
As mayor, Myrzakmatov was accused of orchestrating numerous "rent-a-crowd" riots and failing to prevent deadly clashes between Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks in June 2010. But he rejects any suggestion that he has ever encouraged violence to meet political ends.
Even if he's defeated on January 15, he told RFE/RL, he's prepared to lose gracefully. "I've never called people out to the street," he said. "They came out themselves. In contrast to the current authorities, I've never handed out money. My supporters and party colleagues always came out of their own accord to express their own opinions."
Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar, based on RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service reporting in Bishkek and Osh by Eleonora Beishenbek, Janarbek Akaev, and Ernist Nurmatov