BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – Kyrgyzstan (search) faced a key test of its commitment to democracy in parliamentary elections Sunday amid tension over the exclusion of a number of opposition figures and prominent lawmakers in the former Soviet republic.
Many disgruntled voters in the country of 5 million inhabitants were expected to choose the option of voting against all candidates, a move that could force a second round and underline complaints that President Askar Akayev (search), once lauded as the most progressive leader in Central Asia, is clamping down on opposition.
The elections were being watched closely due to speculation that rising anger could make the mountainous country ripe for an outpouring of mass discontent like the "Rose Revolution" protests in Georgia in 2003 and the massive demonstrations in Ukraine dubbed the "Orange Revolution" following last year's fraudulent presidential election in that country.
Akayev has accused Kyrgyzstan's opposition of disrespecting the law and trying to launch a revolution with the help of "well-qualified" foreign trainers. Those accusations echo Russian complaints that U.S. and other Western groups have fomented political change in Ukraine and Georgia.
The opposition gave no indication of mass organizing efforts this week and one key opposition leader, Roza Otunbayeva (search), has said no revolution-type scenario was being contemplated.
Nonetheless, thousands of demonstrators blocked two key highways for several days over the past week to protest the exclusion of several prominent opposition figures from the ballot. The roadblocks were removed by Saturday, but the disqualified politicians said they would ask their supporters to express their dissatisfaction by voting against all candidates.
Kyrgyzstan, like many other former Soviet states, allows voters to choose the option of voting against all candidates in a race. If a majority of voters take that course in a particular district, a second round would have to be held.
Election officials, meanwhile, postponed voting in Ton district, 150 miles east of Bishkek, where supporters of opposition politician Arslanbek Maliyev — who was disqualified from the vote — blocked roads this week.
Central Election Commission spokeswoman Nina Mukhina said voting in the district was postponed until March 13 because the roadblocks prevented ballots from being delivered on time.
Several aspiring opposition candidates, including Otunbayeva, were denied registration because their recent service as diplomats meant they could not meet the requirement that a candidate be a resident of Kyrgyzstan for the previous five years. Otunbayeva wanted to run in the district where Akayev's daughter Bermet is running; the president's son is seeking a seat in another district.
Opposition groups have also complained that authorities have prevented rallies and say state television has denied coverage of their positions.
Pensioner Lidia Yerefeovna said she supported the president's daughter.
"I've voted for a woman about whom I've read very much," she said, adding that she was sure the voting would be fair. "We haven't seen anything unusual. It's all very well-organized," she said.
The election is to choose all 75 members of the single-chamber Jogorku Kenesh, which is being reconfigured from a 105-member bicameral legislature. All seats are being directly elected; the old parliament included seats that were distributed proportionately to a party's nationwide vote tally.
The changes were approved in a 2003 referendum pushed by Akayev — a move critics said was an attempt to weaken opposition parties. Although Akayev promoted political and economic reforms in the 1990s that prompted observers to call Kyrgyzstan an "island of democracy" in ex-Soviet Central Asia, in recent years he has appeared to be clamping down on opposition.
Presidential elections are to be held in October and Akayev is prohibited from running for a third term, but some analysts believe that a new Akayev-friendly parliament could pass constitutional changes that would allow him to run again.
After voting on Sunday, Akayev said "I have not had, and do not have, intentions to change the constitution."
Tensions also were sharpened this week when broadcasts on some frequencies of U.S.-funded Radio Liberty's Kyrgyz-language service were halted and power was cut off to a printing house that produces many of Kyrgyzstan's independent newspapers.