After months of volatility, Kyrgyz voters hope for calm

On Sunday, voters in Kyrgyzstan decide who will replace their president overthrown in March.

Kyrgyz voters will be asked to put their "accidental revolution" to bed Sunday by electing a new president to replace Askar Akayev, the autocrat who was overthrown in a surge of popular protest last March.

Many hope the polls, which seem likely to be won by interim President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, will bring legitimacy and stability after a tumultuous four months that has seen steep economic decline and a near-implosion of central government authority.

Six candidates are vying for the job, in a campaign that looks relatively open and freewheeling, but beneath the surface many express bitterness over what they call Mr. Bakiyev's sidelining of popular hopes for sweeping reforms. While no one appears to miss Mr. Akayev, who fled to Russia, many say that Bakiyev, a former Akayev ally turned oppositionist, has merely reassembled the authoritarian Akayev regime.

"The revolution was hijacked. The people have been deceived," says Jypar Jeksheyev, a long-time democratic opposition leader who's running against Bakiyev. "More than 95 percent of state officials are Akayev appointees, corruption is worse than ever, and the arrogant ways of the past are returning."

Like many critics, Mr. Jeksheyev says he is aghast that Bakiyev agreed to seat the old legislature, packed with Akayev cronies - charges of vote-rigging in February parliamentary polls triggered the March revolution - and that almost no personnel changes have been made in top state bodies, including the Central Electoral Commission.

"I'm participating with high hopes, but I am not confident these elections can restore stability," he says. "They are dirty. The same things that led to the upheaval are continuing, and I fear our national crisis will only deepen."

Experts say that Bakiyev, a popular politician from Kyrgyzstan's impoverished and ethnically diverse south, gained a probable lock on victory by making a mid-May pact with the revolution's other main figure, Feliks Kulov, a former police chief whose power base is in the wealthier, Kyrgyz-populated north.

Under the deal, Bakiyev will appoint Mr. Kulov as prime minister and throw his support behind constitutional changes that will give the prime minister and parliament far greater powers than they possessed under the Akayev-authored charter. But the on-again, off-again rivalry between the two has been the key threat to Kyrgyz stability since the revolution vaulted them into power, and some fear trouble if their deal dissolves after the elections.

"A Kulov-Bakiyev face-off in the elections would have split the country and possibly led to civil war," says Grigory Kulishov, Bishkek leader of the Social Democratic Party, which isn't running a candidate. "But will their alliance stick? This is the most complicated question we face."

Amid a heat wave that has seen temperatures soar over 104 degrees F. - ferocious even by Central Asian standards - few people on Bishkek streets seem to want to talk politics. Many say they just want stability, or mention their biggest concern: a return to the anarchy and looting that swept Bishkek following the March revolt.

"I suppose I'll vote for Bakiyev, it seems like he and Kulov will keep order here," says Ilyas, a vegetable vendor who didn't offer his full name.

"If someone would clean up the garbage and fix the streets, I'd vote for him," says Sergei Makharov, a student at Bishkek's National University, pointing to one of the city's ubiquitous roadside trash-heaps.

In Kyrgyzstan, where political parties are undeveloped and strong personalities dominate the stage, how the Kulov-Bakiyev equation will play out is a big concern. "I believe they are mature enough to work together," says Asiya Sasykbayeva, director of InterBilim, an NGO that supports civil society initiatives. "Kulov is a policeman, he knows how to deal with criminals, how to maintain order. Bakiyev has a more democratic face."

Some democratic activists agree that Bakiyev and Kulov are not revolutionary leaders in the stamp of Georgia's Mikhael Saakashvili or Ukraine's Viktor Yushchenko, but insist they can work with them. "Yes, they are both homo sovieticus, men of the past," says Edil Baisalov, president of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, a partly US-supported NGO.

"We see these elections as a social compact. There will be no more corrupt, authoritarian style of government. It's not a guarantee. Democracy will not fall from the sky upon us. But the March revolution opened the door. One day democracy looked impossible for us, the next day it was the only possible option."

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