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Kyrgyzstan: Akaev Heavily Favored In Presidential Vote

Kyrgyzstan voters go to the polls Sunday (Oct 29) and will likely elect incumbent President Askar Akaev to another five-year term. Akaev is the only president independent Kyrgyzstan has ever known, a fact which favors him more than any popular sentiment for his achievements as head of state. RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier looks at the vote and at international criticism that Akaev's opponents have not been given a fair chance to contest the election.

Prague, 27 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- For Kyrgyzstan's 2.4 million voters, Sunday's presidential election won't look much different from previous elections.

Incumbent Askar Akaev is heavily favored to win and faces a number of relatively unknown opponents. Serious opposition candidates, such as former minister and mayor of Bishkek, Feliks Kulov, are either not contesting the vote or have been pushed off the ballot by questionable means.

Five candidates are hoping to unseat the president. They include the main challenger, deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament Omurbek Tekebayev of the Ata-Meken (Fatherland) Party. Also running are Tursunbai Bakir Uluu of the Erkin (Free) Kyrgyzstan Party, industrialist Almaz Atambaev, journalist Melis Eshimkanov and human rights activist Tursunbek Akunov.

If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, the top two candidates would face each other in a run-off.

International organizations have criticized the campaign and say that there is little chance now the vote will be free or fair. They say media access has been heavily weighted in favor of the incumbent and that serious challengers to Akaev have been forced off the ballot by heavy-handed means.

Earlier this year, there was hope that Kyrgyzstan -- traditionally viewed as the most democratic of Central Asia's five former Soviet states -- would implement international recommendations following a flawed parliamentary vote in March. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe-- or OSCE -- the United States and local non-governmental organizations all pointed to numerous irregularities in that election.

But Laura Jewett of the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute, which has monitored events in Kyrgyzstan for eight years, says there is little evidence of any changes in election regulations that would lead to freer and fairer elections:

"There haven't been any improvements, I'm afraid, that we've seen since the parliamentary elections."

Kulov, a popular politician who is widely viewed as Akaev's main rival, would have given the president his greatest challenge at the polls. Kulov had planned to run for president but withdrew his candidacy after the government threatened to renew what many consider to be trumped-up charges against him that kept him in jail for about five months this year.

Kulov was arrested after apparently winning a seat in the parliamentary vote and then having that seat taken away from him in a questionable recount of the votes. The charges stemmed from alleged corruption committed during his time as governor of the northern Chu province.

Kulov says there is little chance of a fair vote on Sunday. He says the government apparatus is helping to elect Akaev.

"The situation in Kyrgyzstan is such that the Interior Ministry, the Ministry of National Security and the court system are acting beyond the realm of their duties and are engaged in direct campaigning in favor of the president."

A U.S.-funded international group that monitors campaign advertising says that, in addition to the government's support, Kyrgyz media coverage has been heavily biased in favor of Akaev.

The group -- called the Project for Independent Electronic Media Monitoring -- has released a report listing the amount of time allotted to the different candidates on five television channels available in Bishkek. The project gathered data for the period from October 15 to 22 showing Akaev received 25 times more television coverage than the combined total of three other candidates.

The country's Central Election Commission, or CEC, admits Akaev has collected about five times more money than his leading rival, Tekebaev.

There are also reports of active intimidation. On at least two occasions, opposition candidates claim their meetings with villagers in Chu Province prompted the sacking of the chiefs of those villages. Government officials deny the firings of the two chiefs.

The CEC disputes the reports and findings of violations, and says the vote will be free and fair.

Local and international groups do intend to monitor the elections. The Coalition of Non-Governmental Organizations, one of the leading domestic critics of this year's parliamentary elections, will send out about 2,000 monitors with the reluctant consent of the CEC.

The OSCE, which generally monitors polls in Central Asia, other international organizations, and foreign embassies will also have observers at polling areas.

But many say the damage has been done and the polls will only formalize an election that has already been won.