Nationalists top poll in Kyrgyzstan

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The Independent Online

The surprise election success of a nationalist party has threatened to disrupt attempts to turn Kyrgyzstan into Central Asia's first parliamentary democracy just months after hundreds died in ethnic violence and its President was overthrown.

The nationalist Ata-Jurt party won most votes in the fairest elections ever fought in a region known for rigged votes. The party, which emerged top in a contest between 29 parties, favours a return to a strong presidency, a political model which has ended in the leader's overthrow twice in five years.

Sunday's vote followed the violent ousting of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April and clashes which left 88 people dead. Ethnic fighting two months later between Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in the south of the country killed more than 400.

Hopes that the election will pave the way to stability were tempered by concerns that parties would be unable to form a lasting coalition for the impoverished state of 5.5 million people.

Five parties won seats in parliament, but Ata-Jurt, the leading party, gained only 9 per cent of votes. The fragmented result means that tough negotiations lie ahead to form a coalition.

"I don't think the government will be robust, because whatever alliance is formed it will be very shaky," the Bishkek-based political analyst Mars Sariyev said. "A crisis is possible."

However, the caretaker President, Roza Otunbayeva, who came to power in the April uprising, hailed the vote as a triumph for democracy unprecedented in Kyrgyzstan's chequered electoral history. "We haven't known elections like this for the last 20 years," she said yesterday.

Sunday's election was hailed by international observers and passed without violence and only minor reports of fraud. Under new rules, parliament will be the country's main decision-making body, assuming more power than the President. The parties who will be represented in parliament are split between those who backed the shift of power and those who staunchly opposed the changes.

There is more at stake than political stability. The West and Russia have squared off over the future of Kyrgyzstan, which plays a crucial role in supplying the US-led coalition in Afghanistan.

Washington has embraced Kyrgyzstan's democratic experiment, while Moscow is concerned that its ex-colony is drifting out of its orbit. Moscow has made no secret of its views: President Dmitriy Medvedev has said the parliamentary model will be a "disaster" for Kyrgyzstan. It argued that it could expose the country to more violence or a power grab by Islamist militants.

Kyrgyzstan is the only country to host both Russian and US military bases, and the US Manas base is crucial to supplying the coalition fighting in Afghanistan.

Washington wants to do business with pro-Western leaders who will extend the lease when it runs out in July 2011. Ata-Jurt, a party whose members include former colleagues of the ousted president now in exile in Belarus, has called for the base's closure.