Official campaigns have wound down ahead of national elections in Kyrgyzstan, where around half of the country's 5.8 million people are eligible to vote on October 4. In the decade since the so-called Tulip Revolution ousted a Soviet-holdover president, the Kyrgyz social and political landscape has experienced periodic convulsions. But the country has also clung to democracy and a free press sufficiently to remain a bright spot in a region otherwise populated by authoritarian and dynastic governments.
RFE/RL's Qishloq Ovozi blogger Bruce Pannier has spent the last two weeks traveling the country to get a read on the atmosphere in the run-up to the vote and will be in the capital, Bishkek, on election day.
In this report, Pannier distills some of the most essential questions about this weekend's poll.
What's at stake?
These parliamentary elections feature 14 political parties competing for all 120 seats in the Supreme Council. The vote has particular significance since Kyrgyzstan has a parliamentary system of government and a unicameral legislature.
Based on conversations during my recent travels and judging from the visibility of party promotions -- posters, banners, flag, car stickers -- it would surprise me if the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) did not fare well. Partly, this is due to people's tendency to associate the Social Democrats with President Almazbek Atambaev, though he left the party upon becoming president, in accordance with Kyrgyz law.
Other parties that are likely to do well are the Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party, the Respublika Ata-Jurt (also Fatherland) party, Bir Bol, the Kyrgyzstan party, and Butun Kyrgyzstan Emgek (United Kyrgyzstan Labor). Some other parties such as Ar-Namys (Dignity) might pick up a few seats.
Only a fraction of the 500,000 to 800,000 Kygryz working outside the country are expected to cast ballots, a drop in the bucket in light of its 2.5 million eligible voters.
This is the first time the country is using biometric data to guard against multiple voting and other forms of voter fraud. Concern about how related information might be used has led some to forego the registration, and hence the voting process.
We can expect democratic elections, right?
At least in terms of voter access to information, the electorate's ability to participate, and the ability of political parties and candidates to spread their message among voters, the process appears to be democratic.
We need to see how voting goes on election day, whether the new biometric system proves reliable, and the tabulation of votes transparent and free of allegations of rigging.
In previous elections, some parties have alleged there was tampering with the vote count or violations at polling stations. This has sparked trouble: protests, sometimes violent, and demonstrations that lasted weeks and even months and included setting up yurts on city squares or blocking traffic along main roads through the country. In the extreme, the exclusion from elections of popular opposition figures and suspected vote rigging in the 2005 parliamentary elections contributed significantly to a revolution that ousted then-President Askar Akaev.
Monitors from the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights described the last parliamentary elections, in 2010, as "a further consolidation of the democratic process," and ODIHR monitors are back for this month's vote.
What are the main issues driving the campaigns and, presumably, Kyrgyz voters' choices?
Most of the problems people have been mentioning to me are connected to the economy. There is concern about employment, particularly the topic of migrant Kyrgyz laborers. Many people here feel it is a blemish on the country that Kyrgyz citizens have to leave to find decent jobs.
Another problem that's often mentioned is the sudden, rapid increase in the cost of living. This is due mainly to factors outside Kyrgyzstan's control -- the falling values of the Russian ruble, the Kazakh tenge, and the Chinese yuan. All three countries are major trade partners with Kyrgyzstan.
There is also a feeling that many of the veteran politicians in Kyrgyzstan have been around too long and it's time for a younger generation to enter government.
We keep hearing about Kyrgyzstan's "north-south divide." What is that, and how does it affect this vote?
This is a complicated question. The country is bisected by the Tien-Shan mountains. Generally, northern Kyrgyzstan is the more industrialized part, southern Kyrgyzstan the more agriculturally based. The southern region is more populous and generally more religious/Islamic.
Based on my observations, people in the south are more enthusiastic about the upcoming elections and have higher expectations for what the new government can do.
People in the north, while perhaps less excited about the elections, seem to me to be following the campaign more closely; they have offered more detailed explanations for what they are seeking from political parties, though at the same time they seem less optimistic that the new government can do much to change their own lives.
The north-south rift has been a thorny issue since Kyrgyzstan became independent, but it was clearly exposed when President Kurmanbek Bakiev was ousted from power in April 2010. Bakiev fled to his native region in the south and attempted to rally support there, including through references to the "northerners" who had ousted him.
Officials in Kyrgyzstan rarely refer to the rift. They do recognize it, however, and most of the political parties competing in these elections have ensured they have popular politicians from both north and south on their party lists.
What about Russia? Is Moscow watching closely?
Absolutely. Russia has little to fear from the outcome, as all the parties regard Russia as a major partner. It is inconceivable, as things stand now, that any new government would reduce ties with Russia, especially in light of Kyrgyzstan's recent entry into the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, which many here in Kyrgyzstan see as a chance to improve the country's rather bleak economic situation.
Beyond that, there are some security concerns connected to Islamic extremism. Many view Russia as the country's best ally if Kyrgyzstan indeed faces such a threat.
Are there implications for the region?
If Kyrgyzstan gets this right and conducts free and fair elections, if the population accepts the results, and if the new government can show it is working to fulfill some of the important promises made during this campaign, it could serve as an example.
Most parties have vowed to battle corruption, though this promise has been made before. Some parties have promised to reduce the number of bureaucrats, as both a cost-cutting measure and a means of fighting corruption. Boosting the economy and creating new job opportunities have been recurring pledges, though candidates and parties have been rather vague on how they plan to accomplish either.
The other four governments in Central Asia might not want to see a smooth transition of government based on transparent elections or effective governance as a result of majority will expressed at polling stations, but the people of those countries would have a regional model to consider.
Central Asians have a checkered relationship with Islam. Is Islam a factor?
I have not noticed that. Certainly the elections are a topic of conversation among the Muslims here, and there are reports that some parties have members -- pious Muslims -- who seem inclined toward conservative Islamic values. I know religious leaders are encouraging people to vote, but I haven't heard anyone accuse them of telling their followers how to vote.
The Kyrgyz have a history of taking to the streets, and the 2005 Tulip Revolution was sparked by fraudulent elections. Is there any danger of instability?
I think the biggest danger is that expectations are so high. If any new government fails to deliver on campaign promises, or if some scandal surrounding the elections emerges that people believe is true, all the energy that is going into the campaigning could be channeled in less positive directions. Simply put, if the people feel let down after all this excitement and effort, there are going to be problems.
That said, Kyrgyzstan is in a difficult situation.
Beyond economic woes, there are problems with supplies of electricity and heating that are acutely felt during the winter months. Despite promises made over the course of many years to harness Kyrgyzstan's vast hydropower potential, most such projects remain unfinished -- others have not even been started. Kyrgyzstan has imported electricity from neighboring Tajikistan the last two years to make up for deficits from its own hydropower sources.
Despite an abundance of water, the country still has not adequately developed its irrigation systems, leaving fields fallow where crops could easily be grown. Some in southern Kyrgyzstan have blamed this lack of proper irrigation for why so many farmers leave the country to find work in Kazakhstan or Russia. Properly irrigated, these lands could provide jobs and income for the agriculturally based south of the country.
Many parts of the borders with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are still not demarcated. This has led to tensions, and even shootings, along Kyrgyzstan’s frontier with those two countries.