As Kyrgyzstan prepared to vote for a new president on October 30, many were hoping the ballot would usher in a period of stability after a volatile season of public protests, deadly clashes, and a dramatic presidential ouster.
The vote was to be the first full-fledged presidential ballot since the previous president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, was chased from office in violent antigovernment protests in April 2010.
Two months later, nearly 500 people were killed in the nation's south in spontaneous clashes between Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities.
North Vs. South
Many suspect the horrific events were the result of a political provocation rather than ethnic resentment. But the violence has left the region on edge and set the stage for a dramatic presidential contest between southern and northern candidates.
Paul Quinn-Judge, the Central Asia director of the International Crisis Group, says the vote is less about setting a fresh course for Kyrgyzstan, and more about preventing a backslide into the strife of the past year and a half.
"I hope there won't be such massive fraud as to reignite violent protests. I hope the elections will not deepen the perceived splits between the political elites of the north and the south," Quinn-Judge said.
"And most importantly, of course, I hope that there's not going to be more violence in the south. All of these are theoretical possibilities."
Election officials say over 3.6 million people are eligible to cast their votes in an election featuring no fewer than 16 candidates. Current interim leader Roza Otunbaeva, a former ambassador to Washington and London, is not running for office and will step down after the vote.
The contest will likely come down to a match between three popular candidates -- Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev, nationalist parliamentarian Kamchybek Tashiev, and Adakhan Madumarov, a Bakiev-era top security official.
Atambaev, a relative moderate who has sought to emphasize economic issues in his campaign, is leading in the polls. But none of the candidates is expected to win a first-round majority, meaning a second round that is likely to pit Atambaev, a northerner, against either Tashiev or Madumarov, who are both from the south.
The scenario has prompted fears of fresh unrest in the south, as well as accusations about pressure campaigns and falsified voting lists. Tashiev has warned that an appearance of voter fraud would have violent consequences in the south.
More than 600 international observers are on hand to supervise the vote. And Ainura Shaiymkulova, the deputy chair of the Central Election Commission, said during an online interview with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that election officials were optimistic the vote would be free and fair for all residents.
"All citizens of the Kyrgyz Republic, regardless of nationality, have the right to vote. Every citizen of the Kyrgyz Republic who has reached the age of the 18 and is included on the voter lists has the right to vote," Shaiymkulova said.
"And for someone to divide people along national lines -- to say someone is one kind of nationality or other -- I think is quite wrong. Every citizen has the right to participate in the vote."
Many Kyrgyz voters are focused on issues related to the country's struggling economy -- particularly salaries for state workers and trade ties with China and Kazakhstan. But the outcome of the vote will also have a direct impact on the country's status as Central Asia's sole parliamentary democracy.
The system, meant to purge the country of absolutist presidential control, has been plagued by infighting since its inception last year. Atambaev has signaled he will preserve parliamentarianism, while both Tashiev and Madumarov favor a return to a strong executive.
Eric McGlinchey, a professor of political science at George Mason University in the U.S., says despite the country's rocky start as a parliamentary democracy, a rollback would be a regrettable move for Bishkek, putting it back in the ranks of its more autocratic Central Asian neighbors.
"If they switch back to presidentialism, it's another step I think back in the direction of authoritarianism -- you know, Kyrgyzstan's weak kind of authoritarianism," McGlinchey said.
"But I think it would be an unfortunate departure from some of the liberalization that we have seen politically over the past year, and more of a return to what we now know as the status quo in Central Asia -- that is, strong executive control."
Influence Of Neighbors
Kyrgyzstan, a small country with few natural resources, is nonetheless an object of interest to many of its more powerful neighbors. Russia, which appears to have thrown its support behind Atambaev, is hoping to push Bishkek into a number of new trade and security blocs, most notably the CIS customs union and a future Eurasian Union.
Russia maintains a military base in Kyrgyzstan and may be looking for Bishkek to evict the United States from its Manas air base, which currently serves as the main transport corridor for troops entering and leaving Afghanistan.
Atambaev has signaled that the U.S. will leave when its lease runs out in 2014, the deadline for the American pullout from Afghanistan.
Kyrgyzstan's most powerful Central Asian neighbors, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, have their own interests as well, as Quinn-Judge notes.
"The Kazakhs are constantly irritated with Kyrgyzstan and Kyrgyzstan's unpredictability and, they feel, their unreliability. If we see a move away from the parliamentary system after this election toward a stronger presidency one more time, I think the Kazakhs will be a little more comfortable," Quinn-Judge said. "They don't like the idea of a parliamentary government here, even if it's not a very functional one.
"The Uzbeks are so totally unpredictable that we never quite know [what to expect from them], and I doubt whether one element of change in the political system here will mollify them to the degree that they feel they can work easily with Kyrgyzstan," Quinn-Judge adds.
"Uzbek politics are dominated by the thinking of Islam Karimov, and he tends to be unpredictable, and usually his default position is deep suspicion about his neighbors' competence and motives."