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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fears of Turmoil as Kyrgyzstan Votes

ReutersA Kyrgyz election official carrying a ballot box to a village polling station.
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- Kyrgyz voters cast ballots for a new parliament Sunday in elections that many fear could cause further political turmoil.

Opposition groups say President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's government plans to falsify the elections in an effort to oust his staunchest rivals from the legislature.

The voting was being watched far beyond the country for potential unrest. Kyrgyzstan borders China and is near Afghanistan; Russia has an air base here and the U.S. military base outside the capital, Bishkek, helps support operations in Afghanistan.

Bakiyev's Ak Zhol party faces the Social Democratic Party of former Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev, and the Ata Meken party led by the parliament's former speaker, Omurbek Tekebayev.

Nine smaller parties are also running, but are given little chance of getting into the single-chamber, 90-seat legislature.

"Today, citizens are deciding what way Kyrgyzstan will go," Bakiyev said after voting Sunday. "We will have a new, efficient parliament."

Election officials reported a 61 percent turnout two hours before polls closed; preliminary results were expected Monday.

Halfway through the day, Bakiyev's Ak Zhol and the opposition Ata Meken parties traded accusations of election violations.

Ak Zhol accused opposition activists of trying to buy votes and campaigning on voting day.

Ata Meken claimed ballot-stuffing and multiple voting by Bakiyev's supporters. It also said in a statement that election officials were obstructing the work of observers at some polling stations in southern regions where Bakiyev has the most support.

"Show me anyone who believes that this election is fair," said Atambayev, of the Social Democratic Party.

"If the opposition are not given a platform in the parliament, we will use streets and squares to voice our opinion," he told reporters after voting.

Opposition groups earlier complained that their activists were subjected to intimidation nationwide during the campaign, and that local government officials were pressuring citizens to vote for Bakiyev's Ak Zhol party.

They said they would respond to any election fraud by taking to the streets, as they have repeatedly done in recent years. Purported fraud during the 2005 parliamentary vote led to mass protests that drove President Askar Akayev from power.

"The main thing is that the election will go peacefully and votes will be counted honestly," Anna Nikolayeva, 78, said after voting in the capital, Bishkek.

A new cycle of protests could hit Kyrgyzstan hard. Unlike its energy-rich neighbors, the largely agricultural nation of 5 million people has limited resources and is one of the region's poorest.

In October, Bakiyev pushed through a referendum that changed the constitution. Voters no longer elect individual candidates, but vote only for parties -- and party leaders choose who gets into the parliament. Parties now must receive at least 5 percent of the nationwide vote, and at least 0.5 percent in each of the country's seven regions and its two largest cities, to get seats.

The vote is being monitored by more than 500 international observers, including some 250 monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.