BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – Kurmanbek Bakiyev (search), who took over the interim leadership of Kyrgyzstan (search) when former President Askar Akayev (search) fled an uprising three months ago, headed to an overwhelming victory in presidential elections, according to results released Monday.
Bakiyev, now the country's acting president, had been the favorite among six candidates in Kyrgyzstan, which is of strategic importance for both Washington and Moscow.
With 70 percent of the vote counted, Bakiyev had received nearly 89 percent support, giving him an insurmountable lead over five challengers, according to figures posted on the Central Elections Commission Web site.
Despite temperatures that soared to around 104 degrees in the capital, Bishkek, the Central Elections Commission said more than 74 percent of the country's 2.6 million eligible voters had cast ballots Sunday — passing the 50 percent threshold required to make the election valid.
Political activity in Kyrgyzstan has mostly been on hold since March 24, when protests over allegedly manipulated parliamentary elections led to demonstrators storming the presidential offices in Bishkek.
Bakiyev, a former prime minister turned Akayev opponent, became acting president the next day. He has since spent much of his efforts trying to cool political tensions, but has been criticized for failing to set forth definitive policies.
The election also should indicate if the country can resume a course that once earned it a reputation as an "island of democracy" in a region dominated by authoritarian governments.
Akayev, who had led country since before its 1991 independence from the Soviet Union, had been considered one of the more liberal leaders in the region in his early years, then became intolerant of opposition.
"The unique thing about this election is that, for the first time in recent years, elections really means elections in the full meaning," Bakiyev said after casting his ballot.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (search) sent some 300 monitors, and planned to issue a preliminary report on the election Monday.
If the election is called free and fair, that could encourage nascent pro-democracy forces in Kyrgyzstan's authoritarian neighbor states. The country borders China, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Stability and development in the remote mountainous country are of wide strategic interest, and both the U.S. and Russian militaries keep bases in the country.
Radical Islamic sentiment, however, is on the rise in the country's south. Bakiyev's main challenger appeared to be Tursunbai Bakir Uulu, a human rights ombudsman known for his Islamist orientation.
"We know that he is for Islam," 30-year-old Makhmatullo Abdurashidov said in the southern town of Kara Suu, explaining his vote for Bakir Uulu.
The south has complained of government neglect in the past and was where the postelection protests started this spring. Tensions have been aggravated by a wave of refugees from Uzbekistan, who streamed into the south in May after the bloody suppression of an uprising in the city of Andijan.
In Osh, the south's principal city, 73-year-old Kozibek Mirkarimov said he voted for Bakiyev because "the others didn't have the guts" to take on Akayev.
Kyrgyzstan gives voters the option of voting against all candidates. A woman in Osh, who gave her name only as Tamara, said she chose that path because "those who want power — they're all the same."