BISHKEK -- Kyrgyz nationalist politician Sadyr Japarov -- who was serving a 10-year prison sentence for kidnapping just a few months ago -- has vowed to fight corruption and allow more transparency into government operations after winning a presidential election.
The vote came just three months after a popular uprising over a disputed parliamentary vote sent the country into political chaos.
Speaking to reporters in Bishkek late on January 10, Japarov said that the fight against deeply rooted corruption in Kyrgyzstan will be among his priorities as president. He vowed to bring "openness" and "transparency" to the way government does business in the future.
"During the past 30 years, corruption has taken root in every sphere of our lives. But from now on we won't allow it to continue that way," Japarov said. "We won't repeat the mistakes of previous governments."
He also called on fellow presidential candidates to set their "personal interests" aside and work together "for the sake of the country's future."
With nearly all ballots counted, the Central Election Commission (BShK) said Japarov received slightly more than 79 percent of the vote.
There were 17 candidates in the presidential race. Japarov's closest rival and fellow nationalist candidate, Adakhan Madumarov, received 6.7 percent of the vote.
Madumarov described the early election results as "far from reality" and vowed to "seek justice through legal means."
The results of a simultaneous referendum showed that voters in the Central Asian state of some 6.5 million strongly preferred presidential rule, which would grant Japarov sweeping powers.
According to the official results, more than 80 percent of voters backed a return to presidential rule, while only 10.8 percent supported the current parliamentary system. Nearly 5 percent voted for the third option, "against all."
Election officials said the turnout was less than 40 percent but this wasn't expected to impact the outcome, as there is no legally imposed threshold for the presidential vote, while 30 percent is the minimum threshold for the referendum to be considered valid.
Extreme cold was blamed for low turnout and glitches that caused lines to form at some of more than 2,300 polling stations, but there were no reports of major violations.
The lower turnout was also thought to be a result of a change that prevented people from voting where they currently reside if they are still registered in their birthplace.
The Central Election Commission had reported around 60 complaints from polling stations, most of them allegations about the use of administrative resources or accusations of vote-buying.
The campaign staff of presidential candidate Klara Soorunkulova claimed that they had received reports of "vote-buying" in Osh, but they didn't say which candidate's supporters were involved.
"We got information that some people were buying votes in the southern district of Osh, with some individuals inside a car paying cash [in return for votes]," staff member Gulgaaky Mamasalieva said.
"Also, local residents complained that certain people were putting pressure on them, telling them who they should vote for. But when we arrived at the polling station, they ran away," Mamasalieva told RFE/RL.
Meanwhile, the Kloop.kg news agency conducted its own monitoring of the voting process, deploying more than 1,500 observers in polling stations across the country.
Elvira Sultanmurat, Kloop.kg news agency's editor in Osh, said that "most of the irregularities" reported by Kloop.kg observers were "linked to technical problems, like an automatic ballot box not functioning, or being broken."
"In some places it took 10 minutes or more to fix them, or to use a normal box. Election officials blame it on the cold weather, [they said] the room temperature was lower than it should be. It shows that election process was not prepared properly," Sultanmurat told RFE/RL on January 10.
Sultanmurat added that some election officials barred Kloop.kg observers from using their phones to take photos or videos in the polling stations.
"They demanded special permission for that," Sultanmurat said.
Many voters in Bishkek told the AFP news agency that they were supporting Japarov.
"He has promised to raise salaries, pensions," Vera Pavlova, 69, told AFP, adding that she knew little about the other candidates. "I haven't seen their posters anywhere. Only Japarov's."
The vote comes after the results of the disputed October 4 parliamentary elections were annulled after opposition supporters took to the streets to condemn large-scale vote-buying campaigns benefiting parties close to then-President Sooranbai Jeenbekov.
By nightfall on October 5, the protests had turned violent as clashes with police left one protester dead. A day later, the government had been chased from power, with Jeenbekov, seemingly in hiding. He resigned soon afterward.
Meanwhile, Japarov, 52, was among several prominent politicians freed from prison by protesters during the unrest. He had been serving a 10-year prison sentence for hostage-taking during a protest against a mining operation in northeast Kyrgyzstan in October 2013. He has steadfastly denied the charge.
The tumult marked the third time since 2005 that a president and his government had been ousted by protests.
In the ensuing power vacuum, Japarov became prime minister and was then voted in by lawmakers as acting president.
In a series of maneuvers that have raised questions over their legality, he used the old parliament to rush through motions for the referendum on a presidential system.
A second referendum will need to be conducted, tentatively in March, to vote on a new draft constitution.
On January 10, Japarov said that if the switch to a presidential system won voter support, the Constitutional Council would resume work on January 11 to prepare a new draft constitution.
Critics, including Human Rights Watch and legal experts, say Kyrgyzstan's caretaker parliament did not have the legitimacy to initiate far-reaching constitutional amendments because its term had expired. It's still not clear when new parliamentary elections will be held.
Meanwhile, in order to skirt a law prohibiting him from running in the presidential vote, Japarov quit both posts in November. Still, his critics say that his campaign has benefited from the resources of the state, with his allies occupying key government posts.
Japarov and his supporters have pushed for the referendum, saying the country needs the change to strengthen the role of the president by handing the post extensive legislative and executive powers similar to those in other Central Asian countries.
Those powers, critics point out, are often abused in the region and they fear the same will happen in Kyrgyzstan if the referendum is successful and Japarov wins the vote.
"To maximize his power, he will strive to establish a modern authoritarian police state," Bakyt Beshimov, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, commented on Twitter.
Election officials said that more than 300 international observers had been accredited to monitor the election process.