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Kyrgyzstan's Leader Says Voters Approve New Constitution


Women discuss the voting before casting their ballot papers at a mobile ballot box in the Uzbek district of Unadir in Osh.
BISHKEK -- Two weeks after ethnic clashes rocked southern Kyrgyzstan, the government says it will adopt a new constitution after people across the country voted in a referendum.

Security was tight amid fears of further unrest, but many say they hope the June 27 referendum will enable the country to establish Central Asia's first parliamentary democracy.

Election officials say that with nearly all votes counted, over 90 percent of participants backed the proposed constitution. Turnout was put at nearly 70 percent. Final results are expected later this week.

At a news conference in Bishkek, interim Kyrgyz leader Roza Otunbaeva said that voters have approved a new constitution and had chosen to put the country on a new course and break with its "authoritarian" past.

"This is a historic day for our republic. We believe the referendum was valid and a new constitution has been adopted despite fierce opposition from adversaries of this constitution," Otunbaeva said.

"More than half the country's citizens voted in the referendum, meaning our people have put a decisive end to the era of authoritarian rule by one family under two previous presidents."

WATCH: People across Kyrgyzstan vote on a new constitution. (Reuters video)
Kyrgyzstan Votes On New Constitution
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The new constitution reduces the president's powers and paves the way for the Central Asian country to become the first parliamentary democracy in a region generally run by authoritarian rulers.

Otunbaeva cast her ballot this morning in Osh, a southern city partially ruined in bloody ethnic violence this month that killed at least 275 people and forced another estimated 400,000 people, mostly ethnic Uzbeks, from their homes in the region. The area is a stronghold of deposed former President Kurmanbek Bakiev, whom the government accuses of provoking this month's violence.

In addition to approving the new constitution, voters were asked to give legitimacy to Otunbaeva's presidency, which will last until December 2011. She said she would form a new caretaker government that will take over from the current interim government. It came to power in the aftermath of a popular uprising that ousted Bakiev from the presidency in April.

The new government will stay in power until parliamentary elections tentatively scheduled for October. Future parliamentary elections will be held every five years and the presidency limited to one six-year term.

Otunbaeva said she had voted in Osh to show the country is united.

Low Voting In The South

Few international observers monitored the referendum. Officials said turnout was highest in Bishkek and northern provinces, where official figures said more than 70 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. Voting numbers, however, were by far the lowest in the south, with around 50 percent turning out to vote in Osh city.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said in a statement on June 28 that the vote was "largely transparent" but noted the need for improvements ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections.

Officials took mobile voting stations into some villages. RFE/RL correspondents in the area say people were too afraid to leave their homes in some areas, where officials sent buses to transport voters to polling stations.

There were mixed feelings about the referendum among ethnic Uzbeks.

Osh resident Hayrulla Jalolov, who was wounded during the violence, said he cast his vote in the hope it would bring peace to Kyrgyzstan and put an end to the chaos.

Another ethnic Uzbek resident of Osh, Gulasal Vohidjonova, said she and many of her relatives did not take part. "One reason is that I don't have any identification documents, they were all destroyed when my house was burned down," she said.

Many others said their passports were also destroyed during the violence or raids by security forces.

The referendum took place amid tight security. The Interior Ministry said it stationed nearly 8,000 police officers, with some 12,000 volunteers mobilized to help the police. The army was also put on standby.

Critics say the referendum should not have been carried out so soon after this month's violence. But deputy leader of the interim government, Almazbek Atambaev, said putting off the vote would have handed victory to those who the interim authorities say provoked the violence to exploit problems that have lasted for the past two decades.

"Kyrgyzstan's main problem is poverty. Because if someone's poor, he starts to blame neighbors, other people who speak different languages or follow different faiths. The problem is that for the past 20 years, the country worked to support whichever family was in power," Atambaev said.

After casting her ballot in the capital Bishkek, Rizbe Butova said she believed the government would be able to establish real democracy in Kyrgyzstan because that's what society wants.

Butova said this month's violence was Kyrgyzstan's equivalent of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, and that most people want to step away from the brink of ethnic conflict.

Otunbaeva on June 27 said she would appoint a government commission to conduct an investigation into the cause of the violence, and that international experts would take part.

Gregory Feifer reported and wrote from Bishkek, with Farangis Najibullah in Prague. RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.

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