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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kyrgyz Prepare for Key Vote

APProtesters rallying at government headquarters in Bishkek on March 24.
JALAL-ABAD, Kyrgyzstan -- Meder Usenov led anti-government protests in this southern city three months ago, throwing punches at police officers and urging crowds of demonstrators not to back off.

The protests, triggered by flawed parliamentary elections, spread to the rest of the south and to the capital, Bishkek, where protesters stormed the presidential headquarters, forcing President Askar Akayev to flee the country.

Many hope the election to replace him on Sunday will bring stability. But even some of the staunchest anti-Akayev activists -- like Usenov, who said he was repeatedly thrown in jail by the former authorities for leading anti-government protests -- are not rushing to back the leadership that is now seeking to legitimize its elevation to power. "I want to remain independent and stay with the people," Usenov said. "At the moment, they [the new authorities] are afraid of people, but soon corruption will resume."

He said he had not decided yet who of the six presidential hopefuls to vote for. The front-runner is acting President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, a key figure in the March revolt.

There are also forces openly hostile to the new government. Aydar Bakiyev, leader of the Youth Party of Kyrgyzstan, said he did all he could to prevent the toppling of Akayev. When anti-government protests began in the southern city of Osh, the country's second biggest, Bakiyev mobilized people for counter-demonstrations, working hand in hand with local authorities, he said. "It was a real coup," he said. "A handful of people removed a legitimate president. I was in shock.

"That's why we don't back the new government," Bakiyev, who is unrelated to the new government's leader, said in an interview in a cafe in Osh.

He is skeptical that the new government will be able to carry out a fair election, saying the same tricks used during elections under Akayev -- such as vote-buying, multiple voting and vote-rigging -- would be applied.

Another force that is unhappy with the recent political changes and biding its time is the plethora of radical Islamic groups that are in abundance in the south. "There was no revolution, just a change of leadership," said Ayub Mashrapov, an activist of the radical Islamic Hizb-ut-Tahrir party in the southern town of Kara Suu. "The system remains the same. They promise mountains of gold. ... They haven't done anything yet, and they are not capable of it."

He said he would vote for Tursunbai Bakir Uulu, currently the human rights ombudsman, who is known for his Islamic inclinations. "His principles coincide with mine. My principles are those of the [Islamic law] Shariah," Mashrapov said. "Bakiyev's principles go against mine. He is a democrat."

Hizb-ut-Tahrir seeks to create a worldwide Islamic state. It works by creating underground cells and spreading its ideas through leaflets. The group is banned and persecuted across Central Asia, but Kyrgyzstan's lenient criminal code allows the group to operate relatively freely here. Analysts say that the group has been increasingly involved in politics in Kyrgyzstan recently.

Mashrapov, 31, flexed his muscles to illustrate that the new authorities "know how strong we are."

"The time will come for Muslims to pick up stones," he said.

However, the new Kyrgyz government's most serious immediate task will probably be to win the trust of the country's ordinary citizens.

Arabai Aminov, 36, who sells men's trousers at a sprawling and dusty bazaar in Kara Suu, said he would probably vote for Bakiyev, whom he expects "to make everything like it was during Soviet times: when you work fixed hours ... and your pay is enough to live like a human being."

"If he fails to do that, he must give power back to the people," he said.