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Five parties win seats in Kyrgyzstan's landmark elections

Kyrgyz voters cast their ballots on Sunday for a new parliament in an election widely viewed as free and fair. Five parties have won seats after decades of authoritarian rule and a year of ethnic strife.

An Interior Ministry officer and members of a local electoral commission at a polling station

Many hope the vote will put an end to political and ethnic strife

Five political parties have won seats in Kyrgyzstan's new parliament, clearing the required five percent threshold for the national vote and the minimum 0.5 percent in every region.

International observers hailed the vote as democratic and fair. A wide choice of candidates and a vibrant campaign set Kyrgyzstan's election apart from other ballots in Central Asia, monitors said.

"I have observed many elections in Central Asia over the years, but this is the first election where I could not predict the outcome," said Morten Hoeglund, special coordinator of the OSCE observer mission in Kyrgyzstan.

Under recent changes to the constitution, the newly empowered parliament will now have the right to approve a government and appoint a prime minister.

But, the success of the vote could also be its downfall after initial results indicated that was no no clear winner. The country, instead, could be heading for political stalemate.

The nationalist Ata-Zhurt had a slight lead, but coalition talks seem the most likely option to form a government.

A combination of Ata Zhurt, the socialist Ata Meken Party, the pro-Russian Ar-Namys Party and the Respublika Party is seen as a possibility.

Kyrgyz voters are hoping for peace and stability

President Roza Otunbayeva, who came to power in a violent uprising in April and has championed a raft of changes, said the new political system, adopted in a referendum in June that would curtail presidential powers, would make Kyrgyzstan the first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia.

Otunbayeva symbolically holds the Standard of the President of Kyrgyzstan

Otunbayeva said she would step down next year

"Our people do not suffer from amnesia," she said after casting her vote in the capital, Bishkek. "Our people know their history. They will rise quickly to create a parliamentary republic and protect it themselves."

Located between Russia, China and Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan has been ruled by a series of authoritarian leaders since the breakup of the old Soviet Union.

"We have lived under the dictate of one person. It doesn't work for us," said Otunbayeva, who led the interim government that assumed power following the public revolt in April that overthrew former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Under observation

The June referendum took place two weeks after the worst bloodshed in the country's modern history. Violent clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south of the country killed more than 400 people. Thousands of people, mainly ethnic Uzbeks, were forced to flee their homes and many are still living in makeshift tent villages.

"For all of our people of Uzbek nationality, it's very important to vote for those parties that they believe will provide for their security, first of all, and their further life in the republic," Otunbayeva told reporters.

Extra security measures were taken in attempts to prevent election-related violence. International observers, who monitored the election process, said the poll was largely fair and transparent.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's chairman and Kazakhstan's Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev said in a statement that the elections "will be crucial for the country's future and difficult tasks await those elected."

Election campaign

Otunbayeva has pledged to step down as president on December 31, 2011. She stressed that her role would be to ensure that the newly elected parliament functioned smoothly.

Map of Kyrgyzstan showing the capital, Bishkek, and Osh, the scene of riots earlier this year

Kyrgyzstan was once part of the Soviet Union

"There will be a vacuum, when people will worry and think: 'What has happened,'" she said. "During this time, we need everybody to talk to each other. We are doing everything for the first time. This is pioneering work."

Central Asia's first parliamentary democracy

A total of 29 parties had registered for the election. There are 120 seats up for grabs in the Zhogorku Kenesh state assembly, and parties will need to receive at least 5 percent of the vote to be awarded seats in the parliament.

Some, including Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, have said parliamentary rule could destabilize the country as rival factions vie for power, allowing violence to return and leaving Kyrgyzstan vulnerable to a power grab by Islamist militants.

The southern city of Osh, epicenter of the June violence, witnessed scenes of carnage as protesters torches whole neighborhoods. Hundreds of people, mainly ethnic Uzbeks, were killed in June's riots.

Test of faith

A Kyrgyz man walks under a poster with the images of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his Kyrgyz counterpart Kumanbek Bakyev

Kyrgyzstan could be heading into a new era

Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, who have a roughly equal share of the population in the south, had attended Friday prayers together at the city's 16th-century mosque.

Sirodzhiddin, the mosque's 34-year-old deputy imam, said the clashes in June were a "test of our faith."

"All Muslims are brothers," he said. "We are all the sons of one mother: Kyrgyzstan."

Otunbayeva said she was hoping the poll would end a year of political and ethnic violence that pushed Kyrgyzstan to the brink of collapse.

New violence feared

The risk of a resurgence of unrest was underlined last week when an angry crowd stormed the Bishkek office of virulently nationalist party Ata-Zhurt.

Author: Gregg Benzow, Nigel Tandy (dpa, AP, Reuters, AFP)

Editor: Martin Kuebler

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