It was the television event of the year.
For nights on end, people throughout Kyrgyzstan were glued to their screens, gathering in homes and noisy cafes to watch, spellbound, as the country's presidential candidates fired back at uncomfortable questions, took Internet queries from the public, and attempted to explain what made them the best choice to lead the country.
Starting on October 17 and ending just two days before the weekend first-round vote
, the live debates on Kyrgyz public television were a mix of high ambition and lowbrow entertainment, with hard-line questioning and constraint-free dialogue mixing with gossip, dirty laundry, and a dearth of clear political vision.
All along there was drama, starting with the on-air withdrawal of candidate Roman Omorov and moving on to heated denials, threats, and innuendo from some of the leading candidates.
Many observers saw the debates as highlighting both the pluses and the minuses of the country's democratic development. But at the same time it was clear: In a region marked by tight-lipped autocracies, Kyrgyzstan's debates were truly unique.
Quite An Ordeal
The debates were moderated in lively fashion, in both Russian and Kyrgyz, by public television general director Kubat Otorbaev and Dinara Suimalieva, the director of the Mir television-and-radio company.
They used a random draw to bring several of the 19 original candidates in at a time -- the field was whittled to 16 by election day. Each of the presidential hopefuls was given equal time, with approximately 20 minutes to present their platforms and face questions from both the moderators and the public.
Despite the apparent randomness of the draw, the order of the debates had a sweeps-week feel, with presidential front-runner Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev appearing only in the final broadcast.
It was must-see TV for many Kyrgyz viewers, and prompted widespread speculation about whether the hosts, who had been unrelenting in their questioning of earlier debate participants, would dare to give Atambaev the same treatment.
Edil Baisalov, the head of the Aikol El party and the current chief of staff to the head of the interim government, Roza Otunbaeva, wrote in his blog, "The intrigue of the day is whether Suimalieva and Otorbaev are as hard on Atambaev as they were on Madumarov and Tashiev."
The remark refers to Adakhan Madumarov, a former top security official and the leader of the United Kyrgyzstan party, and Kamchybek Tashiev, the head of the parliamentary faction of the ultranationalist Ata-Jurt party. Both men were considered strong contenders to Atambaev.
Debate And Disfigurement
Madumarov, who served as the head of the National Security Council under ousted former President Kurmanbek Bakiev, proved an unruly guest when he was the first of the major candidates to appear in the debates.
Madumarov, who has been asked to appear for questioning regarding a high-profile murder involving Bakiev's former chief of staff, bristled under persistent questioning from Suimalieva about how much he knew about the case, insisting that the killing hadn't fallen under his mandate as Security Council chief and that he had no reason to doubt the government line that the aide had been killed in a road accident.
"But nobody believed that," Suimalieva persisted.
"What, you conducted a poll?" he shot back.
WATCH: Just after the 5-minute mark, Madumarov reacts to tough questioning over the car accident that killed Bakiev aide Medet Sadyrkulov in this YouTube post of debate footage:
Pressed further about his perceived indifference regarding the 2007 murder of journalist Alisher Saipov, which also took place during his tenure as security chief, Madumarov leveled an unambiguous threat, saying rumor-mongering journalists should have their "tongues cut off."
"I spit on your democracy," Madumarov said. "People who repeat the kind of rumors we're hearing now should have their tongues cut off. And those who pretend to have Kyrgyzstan's best interests at heart but are dividing and harming people instead of uniting them should have their legs cut off."
Next up was Tashiev, a trained boxer who has seen more attention paid to his parliamentary fisticuffs than his political activities. During his 20 minutes, he skimmed over his reported ties with Bakiev's controversial son, Maksim, and brushed off questions about whether he handed out weapons during the deadly June clashes in Kyrgyzstan's south last year, saying, "I was helping people, not handing out weapons."
As Suimalieva pressed him to be more forthcoming, he became flustered, telling her to "be careful" and not to interrupt him.
Suimalieva: Say concrete things.
Tashiev: Wait. Dinara.
Suimalieva: Say concrete things.
Tashiev: Wait. These debates are not for you. They're for the candidates.
Suimalieva: But these are debates.
Tashiev: I'll say it one more time. Be careful. Don't interrupt me.
WATCH: Tashiev's warning to moderator Suimalieva comes at the 40-minute mark of this YouTube video of the debate (in Kyrgyz and Russian):
Suimalieva said after the debates that Tashiev later apologized to her. But the tone of the conversation had been so heated that a number of community organizations in southern Kyrgyzstan complained, saying the hosts had pushed the debate too far and brought heated rhetoric to bear on what remains a deeply sensitive issue.
Suimalieva later said her intention was not to overwhelm the candidates but to force them to offer direct answers to important questions.
A Public Right To Know
Media expert Burul Usmanalieva defended the conduct of the debates, saying the hosts were right to address delicate issues as well as street-level gossip. The debates may have revealed a certain political immaturity in some of the candidates, she said, but for the public, they had proved an essential source of information.
"In the beginning, many people were shocked by the fact that they asked provocative questions," Usmanalieva said. "Some people were outraged by the fact that the presenters were quoting the yellow press."
Usmanalieva said the hosts pulled no punches with Atambaev as well, asking pointed questions about his past and his own ties to the now-disgraced Bakiev regime, as well as his role in the deadly southern clashes.
The hosts also asked Atambaev -- who amassed a considerable personal fortune in the publishing industry -- to address rumors that he was accepting campaign contributions from sources abroad, a thinly veiled reference to Russia.
"I'm not taking money from anyone," Atambaev responded. "I'm spending my own money. I'm grateful to Vladimir Putin for his support. He's often helped me out."
Some viewers expressed regret that the random selection of the debate participants prevented the three main candidates from appearing together, and that often strong hopefuls were pitted against weak ones.
In some cases, candidates even spurned the opportunity for free air time, saying their work schedules were too tight. As one voter observed on Twitter, "We didn't luck out with these debates. They're all unevenly matched, and it's even boring to watch."