WATCH: Leading candidates were among the voters at the polls in the capital, Bishkek, on October 30. Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev, ex-parliament speaker Adakhan Madumarov, and interim leader Roza Otunbaeva all cast their ballots and addressed the public. (Reuters)
The front-runner in Kyrgyzstan's presidential election, Almazbek Atambaev, has claimed victory after winning what appears to be an overwhelming share of votes in the October 30 polls.
The vote comes a year and a half after violent protests toppled a president seen as corrupt and divisive.
With nearly 98 percent of votes counted, preliminary figures from the Central Election Commission website
showed the former prime minister who stepped down to comply with election laws, Almazbek Atambaev, leading with 63 percent of the vote and possibly headed for an outright majority.
The next-closest competitors were former parliament speaker Adakhan Madumarov with nearly 15 percent of the vote and Ata-Jurt parliamentary leader Kamchybek Tashiev with around 14 percent. They have not conceded and will likely file complaints over alleged violations.
Electoral officials have acknowledged that errors in voter lists prevented hundreds of people from casting their ballots, an omission that could take on added significance if opposition candidates continued to press for the vote to go to a second round. Madumarov has pointed to what he called "unprecedented violations."
The polling is seen as a critical test for Kyrgyzstan, whose fledgling parliamentary democracy -- the only political system of its kind in autocrat-heavy Central Asia -- could be dismantled depending on who eventually assumed the presidency.
The vote also comes against the backdrop of a deepening divide between the country's north and south, and threatened to heighten the isolation of the country's ethnic Uzbek minority, which suffered the bulk of fatalities and property damage during violent clashes in the country's south last year.
The outcome of the vote has wider ramifications as well. Kyrgyzstan is the only country in the world to host both U.S. and Russian military bases, and the Kremlin -- which has carefully cultivated ties with many of the candidates, including Atambaev -- may be hoping to see Bishkek nudge Washington aside in favor of stronger trade and security ties with Moscow and other post-Soviet neighbors.
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The commission reported turnout of over 60 percent among Kyrgyzstan's 3 million-plus registered voters. The highest turnout was reported in the northern regions of Chui and Talas, with 73 percent and 81 percent respectively.
Casting his vote, 55-year-old front-runner Atambaev expressed hope that he could win the simple majority needed to beat out his 15 presidential rivals in the first round.
"Everything is in God's hands," Atambaev said. "It will be as God decides. But I hope it will be decided in the first round -- that would less of a torment for people. We'll see what happens."
Many, however, were predicting the contest would go to a second round in two weeks' time -- a scenario that would likely pit Atambaev, a northern moderate with the backing of both Russia and the West, against one of two southern candidates with a nationalist bent.
One of those two candidates, former parliamentary speaker Madumarov, 46, told reporters on election day that he wasn't "counting on defeat," and, like Atambaev, invoked a higher power in expressing confidence the contest would advance to a second round.
"We need to be realistic -- not optimistic or pessimistic, but realistic," Madumarov said. "God will see fit to take this to a second round, I feel certain."
By the end of the day, he had sharpened his criticism. Madumarov cited "unprecedented violations" and charged, "We have never seen such mayhem and disorder before."
It has been an unsettled season for Kyrgyzstan, a country of some 5 million caught between powerful neighbors in a strategically fraught region. Two months after then-Presidetn Kurmanbek Bakiev's ouster last year, ethnic clashes between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the country's south left nearly 500 people dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.
Many fear a second-round contest would reignite a fresh round of conflict.
Both Madumarov and the second southern candidate, Tashiev, 42, have warned that an unfavorable outcome could result in violent protests in the south.
Tashiev, who opted to cast his vote in the northern Naryn province, was initially thwarted when he failed to produce either a passport or a driver's license. He voted after an aide delivered his documents from Bishkek.
PHOTO GALLERY: Voters including interim leader Roza Otunbaeva hit the polls in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.
A number of voters reported procedural difficulties in voting, with many people failing to find their names on voter lists. By late afternoon, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported having received close to 80 calls from listeners whose names were absent from their local voting lists, including Kumush Satarova, a resident of the village of Ak-Jar outside Bishkek.
"We live in Ak-Jar, people from different places reside there," Satarova told RFE/RL. "We were registered in advance, and we were told to vote in the Kelechek polling station. We came in two microbuses -- more than 20 people -- and now they [local election commission] say they don't have our names. We can't vote."
The voting mishaps extended as high as the son of the outgoing interim leader, Roza Otunbaeva, who likewise failed to find his name on voter rolls. Election officials acknowledged the snafus as voting proceeded, but said they were not substantial enough to affect the outcome.
Opposition candidates see it otherwise, however. At a press conference following the closure of polls, Madumarov and five other hopefuls expressed anger over the flawed voter lists, saying any results would be an inaccurate reflection of the electorate's true desires. They have demanded the resignation of several election officials, and were likely to use the issue to bolster their argument for taking the vote to a second round.
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Otunbaeva -- who stepped in following Bakiev's ouster and oversaw the country's recent incarnation as a parliamentary democracy -- will remain at her post until the end of 2011 but is not running for election. She is considered an ally of Atambaev and, after casting her vote, she lashed out at Tashiev for recent complaints
that the prime minister had abused his spending privileges in the run-up to the election.
"The allegations that administrative resources are being abused or that the elections are violating regulations and laws are groundless," Otunbaeva said.
Otunbaeva also said the vote was a "last attempt by Bakiev's people to get power back," a veiled reference to both Tashiev and Madumarov.
There were several reported incidents of attempted vote-buying. Kyrgyz Interior Minister Zarylbek Rysaliev told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that a man had been arrested in the Chui region for offering voters 500 som (approximately $11) to cast their ballots for Madumarov.
In the south, there had been concerns that ethnic Uzbeks would be subject to intimidation to keep them away from the polls, where they were expected to support Atambaev. David Trilling, the Central Asia editor of Eurasianet.org, on Twitter quoted an international observer near Osh as saying, "It is clear that Madumarov is attempting to intimidate Uzbeks. I worry that Uzbeks voting for Atambayev will face problems in the coming weeks."
In Osh, the epicenter of last year's violence, two Uzbek women told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that they were happy to vote. Reflecting the wariness among many Uzbeks, however, they refused to say whom they had voted for, saying only that they had made "the right choice."
"We've been hearing about the upcoming elections for some time now, and we all came here today [to the polling stations] in a happy, delighted mood," one of them said. "We're not against elections."
The second added: "We need a good, fair leader. Our country shouldn't be divided. We all have to stay together, be united. Only then can our economy develop. Kyrgyzstan will be a good country, and our young people will have jobs here."
Osh's controversial mayor, Melis Myrzakmatov, made news after casting his vote when he refused to submit to the mandatory ink-mark on his finger meant to prevent repeat voting. Myrzakmatov complained that the procedure was a violation of his human rights. The General Prosecutor's Office has indicated it will bring proceedings against election officials for allowing the mayor to violate standard procedures.
For Myrzakmatov, a little patience may have been in order: Voters elsewhere complained of the ostensibly indelible ink washing off their fingers easily.
written by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and agency reports