BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN — Kyrgyz voters began casting ballots today in a snap parliamentary election expected to hand President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's party an overwhelming victory though it is being criticized as undemocratic by the opposition.
Home to U.S. and Russian military air bases, and bordering China, Kyrgyzstan has been unstable since 2005 when protests led to veteran leader Askar Akayev's ouster and brought Bakiyev to power.
The parliament, elected in a disputed vote two years ago that spurred the protests, is packed with Akayev-era deputies, and has been the main source of political tension since. Bakiyev dissolved it in October and promised to hold a free and fair vote this time.
But opposition leaders have accused Bakiyev of orchestrating a campaign to silence them and abusing power in favor of his Ak Zhol party in the run-up to the vote.
"It is a deja vu situation: Everything is just like in 2005," said Almazbek Atambayev, head of the opposition Social Democratic party.
Kubatbek Baibolov, leader of another opposition party, Ata-Meken, added: "Massive electoral fraud is being planned."
Bakiyev was elected in a 2005 presidential vote praised by Western monitors. But a constitutional referendum in October, which extended his authority, was criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The group has sent more than 250 election observers for today's vote.
From the densely populated south to Kyrgyzstan's mountainous border with China, 2.7 million registered voters will cast their ballots from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Potential unrest in Kyrgyzstan, a nation of 5 million, is a worry to Russia and the West as it might spill over into other Central Asian regions.
Bakiyev says a less unruly parliament would help the government move forward with stalled economic reforms in an impoverished country burdened by a huge external debt.
But the opposition said it feared Bakiyev might overstep the mark and block its entry into the assembly altogether.
"It seems the plan is to have one team in parliament that would vote unanimously," Atambayev said. "If that is the case, the situation in the country would become unpredictable."
Some voters said they were ready for a stronger presidential hand for the sake of stability.
"Maybe the president will pay attention to the people now," said Alim, 50, a resident of the capital, Bishkek. "It is important that the election goes smoothly and quietly."