Kyrgyzstan‘s prime minister is on target to win a presidential election, seen as a test of reforms aimed at creating the first parliamentary democracy in central Asia after 20 years of authoritarian rule that triggered a revolution last year.
With half the ballot papers counted on Sunday night, Almazbek Atambayev had 65% of the vote, an outright majority that would avoid a run-off against a potentially strong rival from the south.
A trouble-free election would signal the first peaceful transfer of power in the mainly Muslim country, where both Russia and the United States have air bases, but several disgruntled candidates say they will reject the outcome.
The results could yet change as votes are tallied around the landlocked, mountainous country of 5.5 million people. The Kyrgyzstan central election commission said voter turnout was slightly over 60%.
Atambayev’s two main challengers from a field of 16 candidates were each polling below 15%. Both enjoy strong nationalist support in the poorer south and have vowed to contest any result they believe to be unfair.
Though both have insisted their subsequent actions will be lawful, they have refused to rule out street protests. Any such discontent raises a threat of fresh violence and a deepening north-south divide.
Atambayev, born in the Russian-leaning north of Kyrgyzstan, is the flag-bearer of reforms set in motion by outgoing leader Roza Otunbayeva, the caretaker president after the April 2010 revolution.
Her reforms watered down the presidency and established parliament as the decision-making body.
Both of Atambayev’s challengers, Adakhan Madumarov and Kamchibek Tashiyev, say they wish to reverse this.
Madumarov, in third place on Sunday night with 53% of votes counted, was among a group of candidates who declared the results invalid even before polls closed, saying many voters had been left off the rolls.
And Tashiyev, the other southerner, and a former emergencies minister, has said “millions” would take to the streets if they believed the elections to be unfair. He was placied second on Sunday night, with 14% of the vote.
The president can by the current constitution serve a single six-year term, and appoint the defence minister and national security head.
Stamping out graft will be a challenge to the leader of a country that ranked level with the Democratic Republic of Congo in Transparency International’s 2010 corruption perceptions index.
Per capita GDP in Kyrgyzstan, at below £620pa, is less than a tenth of that in its oil-rich neighbour Kazakhstan. The economy relies on remittances from migrant workers and a single gold mine.