Prague, 16 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyzstan's presidential election is more than a year away but it already has its first candidate.
The opposition bloc For People's Power, established earlier this year, has announced it will support a former prime minister and current parliamentarian, Kurmanbek Bakiev, in the October 2005 election. Bakiev is a known political figure in Kyrgyzstan, but what people remember may work against him.
Topchubek Turgunaliev, the chairman of the opposition Erkindik (Freedom) Party and a leader in the For People's Power bloc, made the announcement at a press conference last week.
The Kyrgyz vote will represent the first time in post-independence Central Asia that a new president will be chosen through a popular election.
"The election bloc For People's Power declares that Kurmanbek Bakiev is the most worthy among the leading contenders for the presidency known to the people," Turgunaliev said.
Bakiev was not at the press conference but said later he would accept the challenge.
"What can I say? I am grateful to this bloc that is supporting me, even though it is still a long time until elections," Bakiev said.
The Kyrgyz vote will represent the first time in post-independence Central Asia that a new president will be chosen through a popular election. Four of the five current Central Asian presidents were in power during the Soviet era and Tajikistan's Imomali Rakhmonov came to power via a shadowy selection process involving warlords at the start of the country's civil war. President Askar Akaev, in power since Kyrgyzstan's last days as a Soviet republic, has said he will not seek re-election.
Bakiev and his supporters may be hoping for an edge in announcing the candidacy early. But Omurbek Tekebaev, the chairman of the Ata-Meken (Fatherland) Party and of a separate opposition political bloc, For Fair Elections, dismissed the announcement.
"Naturally, any bloc would seek their own candidate and we consider this quite usual," Tekebaev said.
Other opposition parties may have a different view and will watch Bakiev's progress to gauge their own chances.
The opposition party Ar-Namys (Dignity) would be one of these. Ar-Namys leader Feliks Kulov announced his intention to run for the presidency not long after he resigned as the mayor of Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek, in the spring of 1999. Kulov's intention was to win a seat in parliamentary elections in February 2000, then use that as a springboard for the presidency.
Corruption charges surfaced against Kulov just prior to parliamentary elections and his Ar-Namys party spent as much time in court trying to get the party registered as it did trying to campaign. Kulov lost in an election that was questioned as being suspicious and not long after he was arrested and charged with abuse of office while serving as governor of Chu Province in the mid-1990s. He was acquitted in August 2000, in time to announce his candidacy in the presidential race in October, but before then a military court overturned his acquittal and the Central Elections Commission refused to register Kulov as a candidate.
Kulov was found guilty in January 2001 and remains in jail today.
Ar-Namys said later it would not make its future candidates known until the last possible moment to avoid any other unforeseen legal entanglements.
In Bakiev's case, it is not allegations of corruption that could cause him campaigning problems, but a lingering perception among some in Kyrgyzstan that Bakiev was part of a cover-up in the country's worst-ever political violence.
Bakiev was prime minister in March 2002, when demonstrations in support of a popular politician jailed for obstruction of justice charges broke out in the Aksy district of southern Kyrgyzstan. Demonstrators clashed with police who fired on the crowd and killed at least five people.
The government initially defended the police actions, blaming the crowd and demonstration organizers for starting the violence. Unrest grew to the point that Bakiev and other government officials were warning the country was on the edge of civil war. A video later surfaced showing the police were at fault, and Bakiev resigned in May 2002.
Human rights activist and once a candidate for the presidency himself, Tursunbek Akun, said it is this history that makes Bakiev unsuited for being president.
"I think he is totally unqualified because he is connected to the Aksy events, where there was bloodshed and resistance to cooperation with the opposition," Akun said. "He didn't do anything then and it could happen again."
Some observers credit Bakiev with having a good grasp of the economic problems facing the country. Bakiev speaks Kyrgyz and Russian fluently and his wife is Russian, something that could make him an appealing candidate to the Russian-speaking electorate in the country.
(Ulan Eshmatov and Tynchtykbek Tchoroev of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)