BISHKEK -- Kyrgyz election officials say preliminary results from Kyrgyzstan's presidential vote indicate that Sooronbai Jeenbekov, a political ally of incumbent President Almazbek Atambaev, has won more than 54 percent of the vote, appearing to negate the need for a second-round runoff.
With 97 percent of the votes tallied, Jeenbekov’s main rival, Omurbek Babanov, gained just short of 34 percent, the Central Election Commission (CEC) said on October 15. Preliminary figures showed voter turnout at just over 50 percent.
A total of 11 candidates, including one woman, were listed on the ballot to replace Atambaev, who is constitutionally barred from running for a second consecutive six-year term. The three leading contenders -- Babanov, Jeenbekov, and Temir Sariev -- were all prime ministers during Atambaev's term in office, raising expectations of policy continuity in a country that has to balance the often-competing interests between neighbors Russia and China.
Speaking shortly after the preliminary results were announced, Jeenbekov praised the country’s “great achievements and developments in all sectors in the past six years,” referring to Atambaev’s term in office.
“My task is to preserve what has been achieved, to strengthen what has been started,” Jeenbekov said.
Asked if he has thought about asking Babanov to join his team, Jeenbekov said he has “never had such intention.”
Babanov is expected to speak to the media on October 16. While voting was still under way, Babanov said: “There is no fair election today.… Law enforcement authorities are interfering with the election. Is this what they call a fair election?”
A spokeswoman for Babanov was quoted by the AFP news agency as saying that they were conducting "a parallel count."
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Barring any unrest, the vote would be the first peaceful transfer of power from one popularly elected president to another in Central Asia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
While dirty tricks, arrests, and the alleged abuse of the levers of power cast a pall over the campaign, a smooth election and orderly succession would bolster Kyrgyzstan’s credentials as an island of democracy in the region’s authoritarian sea.
“I am proud of my freedom-loving people who have staged two national revolutions against dictatorial regimes over the last 12 years and have proven that people are the only possible source of power in the Kyrgyz Republic,” Atambaev said during the campaign.
Atambaev said that Kyrgyzstan had achieved peace and stability in recent years and claimed it is "the first and only country in post-Soviet Central Asia with a parliamentary democracy.”
Having battled through two revolutions and several noisy election campaigns, the 6 million mainly Muslim citizens of this mountainous former Soviet republic have become an anomaly among the region's five ex-Soviet states: the most democratic country in a predominantly authoritarian region.
Jeenbekov, a 58-year-old political ally of Atambaev, used his political leverage and support from the incumbent to wage a heated battle with 47-year-old Babanov, a wealthy entrepreneur and former oil trader from the north.
Neither had been able to gain a strong upper hand, with a September poll by the Western-backed NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society giving Jeenbekov 41 percent to about 39 percent for Babanov.
Amid concerns of potential unrest and political confrontation, Sariev, the other leading candidate, said that “there shouldn’t be any tension” in the country after the election.
“The election must finish tonight,” he said.
Atambaev said that the authorities have "jailed and will continue to jail" those planning unrest "so that they don't spoil our celebration."
“For elections in Kyrgyzstan, one must expect the unexpected,” according to Michal Romanowski, an expert in Eurasian affairs at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“Citizens have proved to those in power that in the end they call the shots and authorities will be held accountable for their actions. The attitude promotes political pluralism and a substitute for real electoral competition,” he said.
The campaign was littered with accusations of dirty tricks and outright corruption, underlying the instability that led to the ouster of two leaders through revolutions in 2005 and 2010.
Government critics said the campaign was marred by a criminal conviction handed down to opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party leader Omurbek Tekebaev in August after a trial his backers say was politically motivated.
Meanwhile, the government accused Babanov of trying to buy votes and late last month detained one of his supporters, saying there were efforts to plot a coup during the election.
Babanov denied the accusations and in turn alleged the government has used “administrative resources” against his candidacy and in favor of Jeenbekov.
While Kyrgyzstan's key ally Russia has stayed neutral, neighboring Kazakhstan's autocratic President Nursultan Nazarbaev made a surprise appearance in the campaign in September by appearing to endorse Babanov.
That sparked a strong rebuke from Atambaev, who blasted Nazarbaev in a speech lauding his country's democratic principles and accusing Kazakhstan of being ruled by corrupt "sultans."
In a sign of building tensions and in a thinly veiled criticism of Babanov on October 13, Atambaev also called an unnamed leading contender in the elections a “flunky” of a foreign country.
Kazakhstan’s government called the remarks "unacceptable" and introduced tighter controls this week on the Kyrgyz border, citing security concerns.