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More At Stake In Kyrgyz Presidential Vote Than Would Appear

Incumbent Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev: "Everything works for him."
Incumbent Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev: "Everything works for him."
The Central Asian country that routinely holds the most competitive, provocative, and entertaining elections in the region is about to hold a poll for the nation's top post.

Campaigning started today for Kyrgyzstan's presidential election on July 23.

From an original field of 18 hopefuls, the Central Election Commission approved six candidates who successfully filed all the required documents and passed a test on their knowledge of the state language -- Kyrgyz. To many, the result of the election is a foregone conclusion, but for Kyrgyzstan -- and Central Asia as a whole -- the more important issue will be how open and fair the campaign and voting process will be.

Opposition candidate Almazbek Atambaev
Kyrgyzstan holds the distinction of being the only country in Central Asia to have held an election declared generally "free and fair" by monitors from the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). That distinction owed to the country's last presidential elections, held in 2005, less than four months after angry crowds chased the previous president from power. Kurmanbek Bakiev defeated five competitors in that election, winning in a massive landslide with nearly 89 percent of the vote.

'Very Advantageous'

Political analyst Marat Kazakbaev told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the system will work to see Bakiev reelected. But he said that Almaz Atambaev, the candidate of the unified opposition who heads the Social Democratic Party (SDP), could provide stiff competition for the incumbent.

Another political analyst in Kyrgyzstan, Mars Sariev, says the outcome of the race seems clear already.

"The situation is very advantageous for Bakiev because everything works for him. There are no other candidates that the people would believe in and rally behind," Sariev says. "The SDP will take the majority of the votes, especially in the northern part of the country, but you know how vote counting is done. It's the same vote-counting process used during the time of (former President Askar) Akaev."

Sariev's comment on the country's dubious tabulation process in past polls cuts to the heart of the real problem with the upcoming election.

Since the five Central Asian countries became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991, Kyrgyzstan has widely been considered the most democratic.

Kyrgyzstan boasts numerous political parties and movements -- some 100 were registered at the time of the 2005 election -- as well as well-organized, domestic nongovernmental organizations. The development of civil society in Kyrgyzstan is far ahead of that of neighboring countries, and civic movements -- much more than political parties -- were responsible for the March 2005 Tulip Revolution.

But ever since huge demonstrations for constitutional change occurred in Bishkek in November 2006, Bakiev's government has backtracked on reforms. In the opinion of some, the current Kyrgyz government is actually curtailing democracy and media and religious rights.

In recent months, opposition figures have been beaten and Atambaev's headquarters said on June 15 that SDP supporters and supporters of other opposition parties have been intimidated and harassed throughout Kyrgyzstan. There was at least one suspicious death of a government official this year -- Medet Sadyrkulov, former head of presidential administration and former Kyrgyz ambassador to Iran, who had quit his post and said he would go over to the opposition camp. That death is officially being attributed to a traffic accident, but the circumstances aroused international suspicion.

'Upsurge Of Brutal Attacks'

The country's media situation has also aroused concern.

Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE's representative on media freedom, sent a letter on June 16 to Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbaev saying, "Kyrgyzstan's journalists have recently endured an upsurge of brutal attacks, including two this month alone, while many cases from earlier this year have still not been resolved by the authorities."

The upshot is that while Kyrgyzstan was once held out as a model that Western democracies hoped would influence neighboring states, some believe Kyrgyzstan is instead looking more like its neighbors.

Aside from the incumbent Bakiev and SDP head Atambaev, the candidates include Temir Sariev, leader of the opposition Ak-Shumkar (White Falcon) Party; Jenishbek Nazaraliev, a noted drug-rehabilitation doctor; Toktayim Umetalieva, a leader of an NGO coalition and a candidate in the last presidential elections; and Nurlan Motuev, the "coal king of Kara-Keche" who was detained from May 2006-07 for mismanagement of the Ak-Ulak coal-mining stock company before the charges were dropped, and who now heads the people's patriotic movement Joomart (The Generous) and is chairman of the unregistered Kyrgyzstan Muslims Union.

RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service director Tynchtykbek Tchoroev and correspondent Amirbek Usmanov contributed to this report.

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