Kyrgyzstan votes in referendum seeking stability
BISHKEK (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan voted on Sunday in a constitutional referendum designed to ease tensions in the Central Asian state but criticised by the opposition as a step towards authoritarianism.
Home to a U.S. and a Russian military base, the Muslim state has been unstable since 2005 when protests ousted veteran leader Askar Akayev and brought President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to power.
The proposed changes give Bakiyev additional leeway in picking officials and dissolving parliament, and pave the way for his political party to gain a power base in the chamber.
"People are the real power. After all the debate people will draw a line under it ... and express their point of view," Bakiyev said after casting his ballot in the capital Bishkek.
At loggerheads with a parliament that was elected in a disputed poll under Akayev's rule, Bakiyev is expected to call an early parliamentary election if the referendum is passed.
The opposition, once the main driving force behind anti-Bakiyev protests but now weak and divided over political reform, criticised the proposed changes as authoritarian.
"I voted against it because the draft constitution contains contradictions and strengthens the authoritarian rule of one person," said Emil Aliyev, an opposition politician.
The changes also raise the number of deputies and change the election process from a single-constituency system to a proportional all-party list, which should help the newly formed pro-presidential Ak Zhol party gain footing in the chamber.
Asked when a snap poll might take place, Bakiyev said: "You will hear about it soon. Everything will be as it should be."
From Kyrgyzstan's mountainous border with China to the densely populated south, people will vote until 8:00 p.m. (3 p.m British time). Turnout was almost 50 percent at 0830 GMT, the central election commission said, making the ballot technically valid.
Local non-governmental groups Interbilim and Coalition For Democracy and Civil Society said they had witnessed cases of ballot stuffing near Bishkek. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe was also monitoring the vote.
But many people in Kyrgyzstan said they were ready to give Bakiyev a stronger hand for the sake of stability.
"I am ready for any kind of development. I just hope it'll get better," said Burul, a 72-year-old Bishkek resident.
Memories were still fresh in Kyrgyzstan of the chaos in 2005 when a violent mob ransacked the presidential palace and forced Akayev, in power since Soviet times, to flee to Russia in what critics said was a coup rather than a peaceful revolt.
Elected in a 2005 vote judged free and fair by Western monitors, Bakiyev is regarded as a liberal among his more hard-line Central Asian neighbours. Kyrgyzstan has a relatively free press, strong opposition and an active civic society.
On Sunday, Bakiyev vowed to focus more on urgent issues such as poverty and inflation. "We will work for the economy. We have to do this. People want a normal life," he said.
Some were sceptical.
"No one cares about people in this country," said Svetlana, a 36-year-old teacher. "It's lawlessness that rules it."
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