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Incumbent Favored As Kyrgyz Court Sets Date For Presidential Polls

The timing of the election gives the advantage to President Kurmanbek Bakiev.
Last month, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev, once a hero of the 2005 People's Revolution, announced his intention to run for another term in the next presidential election.

Bakiev said elections should be held in 2010 at the end of his current five-year term, but his decision to bring up the matter so far in advance had raised questions about possible early polls.

Svetlana Sydykova, chairwoman of the Constitutional Court, answered those questions on March 19 by announcing that the election will be held by October 25. But she added that the decision as to whether the vote will take place in October or earlier is the prerogative of the parliament.

The opposition had expected early polls -- just not this early. Moreover, the opposition has recently come under fire.

Earlier this month, a leading opposition figure, former Foreign Minister Alibek Jekshenkulov, went on trial for complicity in the murder of a Turkish businessman, among other charges. His lawyer, Nina Zotova, says that Jekshenkulov denies those charges, calling them politically motivated.

Opposition Complains Of Persecution

Omurbek Tekebaev, who heads the opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party, says that the authorities' "persecution" of Jekshenkulov extends beyond the former minister.

"I regard this as slander. This is a provocation. Not only against Alikbek Jekshenkulov himself, but his family members and relatives are also being persecuted. Criminal charges have been leveled against five of them," Tekebaev says.

"In light of the example of Jekshenkulov's relatives, President Bakiev wants to threaten, first of all, his own current team," he adds. "Jekshenkulov had been his deputy chief of staff and his former foreign minister. Bakiev wants to show his team that there will be major consequences for any important former official who switches over to the opposition camp. "

Tekebaev referred to the case against Jekshenkulov again as being part of the authorities' "election campaign." But he optimistically predicted that the opposition would field a strong candidate and that "we have a chance to win" the presidential election.

The Ata-Meken leader did not mention Medet Sadyrkulov, the former head of the presidential administration who was killed in a mysterious car crash on March 13. There was speculation Sadyrkulov, once reportedly called the "gray cardinal" of Kyrgyz politics, had intended to join the opposition.

Others are less optimistic about the chances of defeating Bakiev. The leader of the pro-presidential Communist Party, Iskhak Masaliev, says the "opposition will not be ready for the elections" and even if they are, "President Bakiev will win."

The Kyrgyz government denies there is any campaign against the opposition or independent media, despite their recent complaints about having to face a growing number of obstacles. International rights groups have also made recent statements about the apparent harassment of these groups.

The announcement of the early presidential election, coupled with the problems facing the opposition and independent media, is likely to add fuel to upcoming protests the opposition is vowing to carry out, including one planned for March 27.

Advantage: Bakiev

Bakiev has always said he would accept the decision of the Constitutional Court concerning the date of the presidential election. But the final decision now rests with parliament.

Parliament is packed with deputies from the Ak-Jol party, created with Bakiev's help prior to the last parliamentary elections in late 2007. And the parliamentary committee for the constitution and legal issues proposed on March 19 that the presidential election be held on July 23. The whole parliament is likely to vote on that proposal in the coming days.

The timing appears to be advantageous for Bakiev.

The opposition, in disarray, has little time to prepare for the polls. Moreover, Bakiev is counting on optimism sparked by Russian promises to provide more than $2 billion in aid to Kyrgyzstan's struggling economy.

Were the elections in 2010, the opposition would have time to regroup and Russia might not fully deliver on its aid pledge -- putting Bakiev on the defensive.

But the incumbent still faces challenges. Kyrgyzstan has always been poor, but the global economic crisis has made things even worse.

Economic problems and the potential for social unrest are almost sure to be exacerbated by the return of tens of thousands of migrant laborers from Russia and Kazakhstan who will join the ranks of Kyrgyzstan's unemployed.

Added to that are the now annual problems with energy supplies, which saw schools closed for much of the winter due to the country's inability to generate enough electricity.

Those issues are likely to provide a window of opportunity -- albeit a narrow one -- for the opposition during the upcoming election campaign.

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service director Tynchtykbek Tchoroev and correspondent Edil Saparbek contributed to this report