Kyrgyzstan to hold presidential election

This Central Asian nation that hosts a key US military air base votes Thursday in a presidential election that is almost certain to tighten the incumbent's grip on power in the former Soviet republic, reported AP.

If re-elected, Kurmanbek Bakiyev is expected to continue his impoverished country's policy of playing Moscow against Washington in an effort to win aid from both.

Bakiyev campaigned on a platform of stability, appealing to the electorate's desire to see an end to political turmoil. But the opposition accuses him of using intimidation to help ensure the continuation of his rule and says he is taking the country - once viewed as the region's beacon of democracy - down the path of authoritarianism.

"Security service officers have literally been going from house to house threatening people so that they would not go to opposition meetings," said opposition candidate Almazbek Atambayev.

Since coming to power in the wake of the 2005 popular uprising that toppled the former president, Bakiyev has largely lived up to promises to increase government spending, boosting salaries and pensions in the process. Those achievements have been undermined by rampant inflation, however, while the effect of the global financial crisis on Russia and Kazakhstan has had a devastating impact on the local economy, which relies heavily on remittances and trade.

According to a recent International Monetary Fund report, growth in the Kyrgyz economy could almost come to a halt in 2009, after years of relatively robust performance.

Rampant unemployment, electricity shortages, pervasive corruption and rising crime rates are also deepening discontent.

In an effort to offset those economic difficulties, Bakiyev has over the past few months deployed his diplomatic wiles to secure more than $2 billion in aid and loans from Moscow. The financial support was widely seen as in exchange for closing the U.S. air base, which the Kremlin has long viewed with suspicion.

Yet although Bakiyev announced in February that the U.S. would be evicted from the Manas base used to ship supplies to troops in Afghanistan, his government later agreed to a new lease that will see Kyrgyzstan earn $60 million in annual rent, more than triple the previous amount, plus a further $120 million in investment and aid.

"Dubbed Central Asia's 'Island of Democracy' over the past decade and a half, the country has of late resembled its more authoritarian neighbors and continues to be at the center of a mini 'Great Game' power struggle between, among others, the United States and the Russian Federation," said Anthony Bowyer, the Central Asia program manager at IFES, a Washington-based democracy-building group.

Domestic critics say Bakiyev's muscular brand of leadership could eventually turn Kyrgyzstan into yet another of the despotic regimes that abound in the region.

"What we see now is a monopolization of power by one force," said Bakyt Beshimov, who is running opposition candidate Atambayev's campaign.

In 2007, the pro-Bakiyev Ak Zhol party won 71 seats out of 90 in a parliamentary election that international election observers said was marked by voter intimidation and misuse of state resources.

The scale of the Bakiyev campaign machine also ensures that he will have little difficulty in securing a comfortable victory. Gargantuan billboards bearing Bakiyev's name are placed liberally around the capital, Bishkek, and the president enjoys vastly more television and radio coverage than any of the other five registered candidates. Atambayev's campaign has relied mostly on small posters stuck on lampposts, which his team says are regularly ripped down within hours of being put up.

Even so, pro-government politicians are sensitive to suggestions that the elections will be unfair and say the opposition has been hasty in judging the outcome.

"The child hasn't been born yet, and they are already saying he is bad and an idiot," said lawmaker Tabyldy Orozaliyev, who heads Bakiyev's campaign team.

The Kyrgyz government initially sought to limit the number of observers from the election monitoring arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to 150, said Radmila Sekerinska, who heads the body's election observation mission in Kyrgyzstan. After talks with Kyrgyz officials, the mission was able to put 200 observers on the ground, she said.

Ultimately, it is widespread apathy that is most likely to favor the current regime, after years of turbulence marked by violent street protests and political infighting.

"It is unfortunate to have to say this, but by force of inertia, most people will go toward the party of power," said Mars Sariyev, an independent Kyrgyz political analyst.

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