OSCE monitors slam Kyrgyz presidential election
Peter Leonard, Associated Press Writer – 14 mins ago
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – Kyrgyzstan's presidential election, which the incumbent won by a landslide, was marred by ballot-box stuffing and widespread irregularities in vote counting, international monitors said Friday.
The preliminary assessment by Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's election-monitoring arm could bolster the opposition's determination to protest Thursday's ballot. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev won about 85 percent of the vote, according to the official tally of three-quarters of the votes.
Stability in Kyrgyzstan, a nation of 5 million on the western border of China, is of strong interest to both Russia and the United States. The country hosts a U.S. air base crucial to operations in Afghanistan and is the focus of competition between Washington and Moscow for regional influence.
The report cited numerous incidents of ballot-box stuffing and strongly criticized the vote counting, saying observers rated over half the vote counts at precincts as not acceptable.
In addition, Bakiyev used state resources to make sure he captured another 5-year term, the report said, calling the election "a disappointment."
"Sadly, this election did not show the progress we were hoping for and it again fell short of key standards Kyrgyzstan has committed to as a participating state of the OSCE," monitoring chief Radmila Sekerinska said in a statement.
The main opposition candidate, Almazbek Atambayev, has dismissed Thursday's election as fraudulent and called for a rerun. He said ballot-stuffing was widespread, election monitors were intimidated and the official turnout was inflated.
Atambayev won just over 5 percent of votes, according to the partial tally.
"(The election) was undermined by an overall uneven playing field in which the distinction between the ruling party and the state was blurred," said Consiglio Di Nino of Canada, coordinator of the OSCE short-term observer team.
The report said the failure of largely state-controlled broadcast media to give balanced coverage to all election contestants and its evident bias for Bakiyev denied voters the opportunity to make an informed choice.
Sekerinska said she could not pass judgment on the legitimacy of the election, but said the monitors were "pleased to hear that some of the candidates will pursue legal means" to challenge the voting irregularities.
Bakiyev, 59, had campaigned on a platform of stability. The opposition, however, accuses him of cheating in the largely peaceful vote and say he is taking Kyrgyzstan — once viewed as the region's beacon of democracy — down the path of authoritarianism.
Hours before the polls closed, Atambayev announced he was taking himself out of the running in protest, though legal issues prevented him from officially withdrawing.
Bakiyev has increased government spending and boosted salaries and pensions. But the global financial crisis has slammed Russia and neighboring Kazakhstan, devastating Kyrgyzstan's economy because it relies heavily on remittances and trade.
Under a recent deal to extend the lease of the Manas U.S. air base, Kyrgyzstan will receive $60 million in annual rent, more than triple the previous amount, plus a further $120 million in investment and aid.
Bakiyev has also secured more than $2 billion in aid and loans from Russia, widely seen as an attempt by Moscow to pressure Bakiyev to close down the Manas base.
His government ordered U.S. forces out of Manas by August, but later reversed itself.
If elected, Bakiyev is expected to continue courting support from both the U.S. and Russia.
(This version CORRECTS to 'international' monitors sted 'European' since the OSCE also includes the United States, Canada and former Soviet Central Asian countries. )