To the relief of Kyrgyz officials and foreign observers, voting proceeded calmly during Kyrgyzstan's October 10 parliamentary elections. Turnout appeared to be strong considering the country's recent troubles, with anecdotal evidence suggesting that beleaguered Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan cast ballots in larger than expected numbers.
At 8 pm on October 10, turnout was reported at 57 percent and rising, with tallies from polling stations in Kyrgyzstan's provinces still arriving at the Central Electoral Commission. There is no minimum turnout necessary for the election results to be valid. A CEC spokesperson told EurasiaNet.org shortly before the polls closed that results would be released "within the next two or three days."
Already this year, Kyrgyzstan has been buffeted by political unrest and inter-ethnic strife, and some political observers had expressed concern that the election could spark a new bout of instability. While getting through election day without turmoil is a significant accomplishment, some experts contend that the post-election period remains fraught with danger, especially if some influential political forces do not like the voting results and foment street protests.
The parliamentary election is intended to transform Kyrgyzstan from a presidential to a parliamentary democracy. Experts say it is far too soon to gauge whether the election will be successful on this point, adding that several daunting obstacles still stand in the way of the country completing its political make-over.
Despite the stark divisions between northern and southern Kyrgyzstan evident during the parliamentary campaign, voters in both regions tended to use many of the same buzzwords when discussing their expectations: peace, stability, ethnic accord and economic hope.
"We want peace, we want solidarity, we want calm," pensioner Jumagul Murataliyeva told EurasiaNet.org in the village of Ak-Beshim outside Bishkek. "We don't need nationalist people; we don't want more scandals or bloodshed."
In the south, people in the divided ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbek communities had the same hopes. "The first thing we want is peace and stability in our country, then jobs for young people," Gulya Ochilova, an unemployed Uzbek woman, told EurasiaNet.org in Osh, the center of ethnic clashes that left over 400 dead in June.
"I voted for people having enough to eat in the future [...] and not being set against each other," said an elderly Kyrgyz man who requested anonymity after casting his ballot in an Osh polling station. "The fate of Kyrgyzstan is hanging in the balance."
The provisional leadership, headed by provisional President Roza Otunbayeva, hopes the election will allow Kyrgyzstan to set divisions aside and move on, but there is a risk that the results could further polarize the country.
In the north, parties headed by leaders who were until recently members of the provisional government - Omurbek Tekebayev's Ata-Meken (Fatherland) and Almazbek Atambayev's Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) - could be the biggest vote-getters. But no single party looks able to dominate the legislature, meaning the next government will be the product of coalition building. In all, six or seven parties are expected to cross the 5 percent nationwide threshold to gain seats in the legislature.
"We're hoping that the new parliament finds a common language, whether through a coalition or some other way, and that they improve the lives of the people," Ata-Meken supporter Jumabek Namatbekov told EurasiaNet.org in the northern village of Ak-Beshim.
In the south, there is only scattered support for Ata-Meken and the SDPK. The strongest party in the region is Ata-Jurt, which has been criticized for espousing nationalist rhetoric and for maintaining links with former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, an allegation its leaders deny. Observers doubt that Ata-Jurt can work with the other two leading parties, which may leave it out in the cold when the government is formed. Such a development could leave large numbers of southern voters disgruntled.
Underscoring the persisting risk of violence, ahead of the vote Osh Governor Sooronbay Jeenbekov appealed for calm when the results come in: "There will be winners and losers in the elections. [...] The people must not be stirred up and the population must not be taken out onto the streets."
Osh is an Ata-Jurt stronghold, and many voters are enthusiastic in their support for the party. "Everyone here supports Ata-Jurt because all the leaders are professionals," said Ulan Suleymanov, an unemployed Kyrgyz man who praised the party's law-and-order platform.
Although Ata-Jurt has been accused of being ethno-centric in favor of ethnic Kyrgyz, many ethnic Uzbeks said they were supporting the party and denied they were pressured to do so. Zukhra Matekubova, an ethnic Uzbek housewife from a central Osh mahalla (neighborhood), was so won over by the party that she campaigned for it.
"Our whole mahalla voted for Ata-Jurt," she told EurasiaNet.org as her neighbors nodded agreement. Like many voters, Matekubova divides parties into northern and southern: "The reason we don't vote for northern parties [...] is that we don't know them. The South is more inclined to vote for Ata-Jurt. They understand our problems." She and other voters said the Uzbek community had not been coerced to support certain parties.
In Osh's Sharq district, which was badly damaged in the June violence, a group of displaced women living in tents said they were backing Ata-Jurt, adding that party representatives had assisted them with donations of clothes and provisions. Other Uzbeks expressed skepticism, saying such outreach was merely a campaign gimmick and was unlikely to continue during the post-election period.
The Ar-Namys party is popular among both the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities. Many see the party's leader, Felix Kulov, a Russian-speaking ethnic Kyrgyz former prime minister from the North, as a guarantor of security and a neutral figure in the dispute that continues to simmer about who is responsible for June's violence. Southern backing could make Kulov a powerbroker in talks to form a coalition government.
Once the results are finalized, coalition talks promise to be tricky, and - as Otunbayeva herself has acknowledged - the outcome remains uncertain. "I hope the deputies [in the new parliament] will manage to reach a consensus and form a government," she said after casting her vote in Bishkek.
David Trilling provided reporting.