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Kyrgyzstan: Bakiev Out Front In Presidential Race

Kurmanbek Bakiev (file photo) On 10 July, Kyrgyz voters will go to the polls to elect a new president. Among the candidates, the frontrunner is acting President Kurmanbek Bakiev. Some analysts say the question now is whether so many people regard Bakiev’s victory as certain that there will be a low turnout. As RFE/RL Gulnoza Saidazimova reports from Bishkek, that could rob the next government of the popular mandate it needs to build stability.

Bishkek, 6 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- This time of year in Bishkek, the streets are almost empty at midday. Those people who are driving or walking about look weary and tired under the scorching sun.

The heat makes everyone seek refuge under the shade of the green trees beside the flowing streams in the aryqs -- the water canals.

Only late in the evening, do the streets and squares enliven a bit and talk turns to the presidential election -- now just five days away.

I ask some soldiers who they plan to vote for on 10 July. They refuse to talk into the microphone and at first say only that they are going to vote for “stability and security.”

To the question: “Who do you mean?” one of them responds: “Bakiev, of course.” Another corrects him: “the Bakiev-Kulov tandem.”

They are referring to Kurmanbek Bakiev, the current acting president. He is a former prime minister and one of the most influential politicians from the south of Kyrgyzstan. His opposition group along with others took part in street protests that drove former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev from office on 24 March.

Since then, Bakiev has formed an alliance with the man once seen as his main rival after the revolution, Feliks Kulov.

Kulov a former political prisoner under Akaev and a main opposition leader from northern Kyrgyzstan, dropped out of the presidential race so that he could join Bakiev as junior partner on a unified north-south ticket. The two have agreed that Kulov would be prime minister if Bakiev wins the presidency.

There are five other candidates still competing against the Bakiev.

The two strongest are another former opposition leader Jypar Jeksheyev and Tursunbai Bakir Uulu, the country’s ombudsman. Also running are Keneshbek Duyshebaev, a former official in Akaev’s government, and Toktaiym Umetaliyeva, the first woman candidate for president. So too, is Akbarali Aitikeyev, president of the union of industrial workers and entrepreneurs.

But here on the street, many people seem to regard the race as already decided.

Zamir is a 42-year-old construction worker. Speaking while his colleague continues welding, he says the winner has been well known long before the election.

“In our Kyrgyzstan, at present there is no other person to vote for. There is only one person, I’m not going to name him, but you know whom I mean. If there were other people, we could vote for them, but there are no choices, no alternatives in economy or politics. So, we have only one man in mind, we are going to vote for him,” Zamir said.

He means his candidate is Kurmanbek Bakiev.

But why is Bakiev seen so widely as the frontrunner?

Some people say Bakiev became the only possible candidate for them to vote for after Kulov stepped aside.

Tamerlan, 28, tells it this way.

“I wanted to vote for Kulov, but he withdrew his candidacy from the race. Now he runs with Bakiev on a joint ticket. It means I am going to vote for Bakiev,” Tamerlan said.

Others say they think Bakiev and Kulov have the experience needed to establish order and stabilize the economy. Like this ethnic Russian woman, who introduces herself as Tatyana, and is in her late 30s.

“For Bakiev. I like the alliance of Bakiev and Kulov because one is an economist, the other one is a lawyer. Maybe they could manage to do something good,” Tatyana said.

But not everyone on the street is so convinced. I also meet an entrepreneur who says he is disillusioned with the whole list of candidates and will vote for no-one.

He gives his name as Marat and is 43.

“I’m going to cross out all [the names in ballots], I’m against all. Because I think there are no worthy ones. What are the new authorities going to do tomorrow? Where are we heading in politics, in economy? We don’t know it because they [candidates for president] didn’t tell us what they are going to do. That’s why no one knows what future our country has. I think we should have other, more worthy, candidates,” Marat said.

His remarks underline the fact that Kyrgyzstan has seen considerable political turmoil since former long-time ruler Akaev was ousted.

The unrest has included an attack by several hundred protestors on government buildings in Bishkek on 17 June by supporters of one of the candidates disqualified from the presidential race, Urmatbek Baryktabasov.

That attack highlighted fears that some Kyrgyz politicians will continue to try to use street power to influence events in the country after the election -- something that could undermine prospects for future stability.

Some observers hope that an overwhelming victory for any one of the presidential hopefuls could provide enough of a popular mandate to guarantee the next government protection from street actions.

But as Bakiev now appears to many people so clearly the frontrunner, a new danger has set in. That is a possible low turnout by voters who already are convinced Bakiev will win, with or without them.

Michael Hall, the director in Bishkek of the International Crisis Group’s Central Asia Project, says a low turnout on 10 July is very probable.

“The reason, part of it, is that in many cases in the parliamentary elections, there was a sense that this was going to be a real contest, this was going to be a real fight, it was a going to be a showdown between the forces of reform and the forces of conservatism. There was a sense that there was a great deal at stake and the outcome was not clear. For better or for worse, with the presidential election, I don’t think many people are going to dispute the outcome, [it] seems to be pretty clear,” Hall said.

Analysts say that beyond robbing the next government of the popular mandate it needs to help create stability, a very low turnout could also send the election into a second round.

Then it would remain to be seen whether the Bakiev-Kulov team could keep its frontrunner position or whether a new, stronger challenger might arise from the failure of the first round.

For RFE/RL's full coverage of Kyrgyzstan's presidential election, see "Kyrgyzstan Votes 2005"

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