Campaigns in the former Soviet republic have been competitive but are unlikley to alter the country's firmly pro-Moscow course. Ethnic tensions and the threat of violence remain a threat to stability.
Voters in Kyrgyzstan headed to the polls Sunday for parliamentary elections expected to hand pro-Russia parties a fresh five-year mandate.
Polling stations across the predominantly Muslim Central Asian country of six million opened at 8 a.m. local time (0200 UTC), the election commission said, as 14 parties and more than 2,000 candidates vie for seats in the 120-member parliament.
The outgoing ruling Social Democrats, who led the most recent coalition, appear set to emerge again as the largest party, which is still firmly associated with President Almazbek Atambayev. He officially resigned from his party in order to be elected as head of state in 2011.
Atambayev, whose term ends in 2017, tacitly backed the Social Democrats in the run-up to the parliamentary election, opening roads, tunnels and other infrastructure and urging voters to "choose stability", the party's slogan.
‘Non-partisan' president supports former party
On Sunday, he made clear he wanted his former party to lead a new ruling coalition with a stronger mandate.
President Almazbek Atambayev casts his ballot at a polling station in Bishkek. As a nominally non-partisan head of state, he has still openly supported his former party.
"For me, it's important to have a solid footing in parliament," the president told reporters after casting his ballot. "I hope today the Social Democrats will get more than 26 seats," he said, referring to the party's result in the 2010 election.
Other parties tipped for strong support include Ata-Meken, Bir Bol and Respublika-Ata-Jurt, all of which feature former prime ministers on their party lists and are openly loyal to Moscow.
Kyrgyzstan is a member of the Moscow-led military bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (ODKB), and of the Eurasian Economic Union - an initiative of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But real-life problems for the impoverished nation of six million are overshadowing the political contest. Earlier this week the International Crisis Group released a gloomy report describing Kyrgyzstan as troubled by Russia's economic downturn, instability in neighboring Afghanistan and growing Islamic radicalization.
These risks are "exacerbated by leadership failure to address major economic and political problems, including corruption and excessive Kyrgyz nationalism," the report said.
Strained ties with Washington
Optimistically referred to as an "island of democracy" in an authoritarian neighborhood, Kyrgyzstan has the region's freest media and civil society and once hosted US and Russian military bases simultaneously.
But the lease on the United State‘s Afghanistan-linked Transit Center was not renewed in 2014, and relations have grown tense after Kyrgyzstan terminated a bilateral cooperation accord dating back to 1993 this summer.
That decision, which threatens the provision of millions of dollars in US foreign aid, came after the US State Department awarded a human rights prize to an ethnic minority activist jailed in 2010.
Ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks left hundreds dead after the ouster of strongman President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010.
The election campaign has also been marred by allegations of vote buying and other underhand campaign tactics by a number of major parties.
Sunday's election is the first time citizens of Kyrgyzstan have been required to submit biometric data to cast votes. But the new government measure has effectively sidelined hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz migrants working in Russia and other citizens who failed to meet the September 19 deadline for submitting their data.
Nearly 800 election monitors from 47 organizations and 57 nations will observe polling stations with an OSCE-backed mission sending 353 observers.
Some 17,000 military troops have also been deployed to protect election sites.
jar/rc (Reuters, AFP, dpa)