Bishkek, 27 February 2005 -- Kyrgyz National University attracted particular attention of independent election observers today. That's because President Askar Akaev's daughter, Bermet Akaeva, is running for a parliamentary seat in the district that includes the university. The son of the Kyrgyz president, Aydar Akaev, also is a candidate in another district.
As polls in a campus building opened at 8 a.m. local time, Kyrgyzstan's national anthem could be heard playing from a public address system. One major innovation at the voting booths is that electoral officials marked voters' thumbs with inedible ink to ensure they could not vote more than once. Transparent ballot boxes also were used so that the folded ballot papers inside remained visible at all times to election observers.
Electoral officials say students at the university had proposed the candidacy of Bermet Akaeva. But some independent experts and relatives of students allege they were forced to sign her candidacy petition and had faced harassment if they refused to do so.Influence From Above?
In an interview with RFE/RL today, Akaeva denied any electoral irregularities in connection with her candidacy or that of her brother Aidar.
"We are participating [in this election] in a democratic way. The president did not appoint us either as a minister or governor," Akaeva said. "We are competing [for parliamentary seats] ourselves in a transparent way. Now it is up to the people to choose."
However, RFE/RL's correspondent today observed two university officials harshly herding young voters into the polling station. After that incident, both officials declined to answer questions by RFE/RL.
Some students at the polls appeared frightened when questioned about whether they were being told how to vote. None seemed enthusiastic about voting -- even though many said it was the first time they had cast a ballot.The Youth Vote
All of the student voters interviewed said they had voted for Akaeva. But many found it difficult to explain why. One young female student who declined to give her name laughed when asked why she had voted for the president's daughter.
"Well, I don't know, the student said. "She promised a good future for us -- students and youth. I don't remember."
A young male student appeared nervous when asked the same question and admitted he had little information about any of the candidates:
"Well, you know, I have only generic information [about Bermet's political program]," he said. "Well, she has many good qualities."
But the mother of another student who requested anonymity explained the hesitancy of the student voters differently. She told RFE/RL that students were being pressured to vote for the president's daughter.
RFE/RL's correspondent observed two university officials harshly herding young voters into the polling station.
"Students have faced pressure from teachers and [the university] administration," the woman said. "They are dissatisfied because they know nothing about candidates other than Bermet Akaeva. Some students don't know what to do. They don't want [to vote for Akaeva] but they are afraid to be expelled from the university. They were threatened that they could be expelled and that life will become difficult for them [unless they voted for Akaeva]."
At a polling station in central Bishkek, President Akaev said after casting his ballot that he expected a high turnout:
"I am very delighted that in all constituencies of the country there is a very active work of voters to elect worthy deputies of our new unicameral parliament," Akaev said. "I believe elections will be successful."
Akaev also said the trend toward turning Kyrgyzstan from a presidential republic into parliamentary republic is progressing. He described the current system as one that is "presidential-parliamentary."Another Term For Akaev?
The Kyrgyz opposition has repeatedly voiced concerns that Akaev might try to stay in power after his second term ends this October. The constitution says the president can only stay in office for two terms. Opposition leaders say they think Akaev may either try to amend the constitution to stay for an additional term or give more authority to the parliament -- changing the system and then becoming a prime-minister with expanded powers.
But after casting his ballot, Akaev denied those allegations.
"This is a big insinuation," Akaev said. "Our opposition and foreign experts have repeatedly said that President Akaev will amend the constitution in order to prolong [my] term for some more years. I would like to say clearly and precisely once again that I, President Akaev, never had and don't have any intention to initiate or make any amendments to the current constitution."
Vladimir Rushailo, head of a CIS mission with more than 200 election observers in Kyrgyzstan, said early turnout appeared to be high at the polling stations he visited.
"We visited several polling stations where opposition candidates are running and we spoke to opposition members and independent observers," Rushailo said. "So far, we have no major complaints. But the day is ahead. We'll make final conclusion tonight [after polls close at 8 p.m. local time]."
Other observers have expressed skepticism about reports of a high turnout across the country. Many predict that a second-round ballot is unavoidable in most districts.
(RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service stringer Cholpon Orozobekova contributed to this story from Bishkek)