Oct. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Kyrgyzstan’s former Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev is favorite to win a presidential vote this weekend as the only country in the world that hosts Russian and U.S. military bases seeks to avoid the violence that’s marred its political landscape and threatened investment.
The central Asian nation, wedged between China and Kazakhstan, will cast its ballots Oct. 30, with one opinion poll suggesting Social Democratic Party leader Atambayev may be 41 percentage points or more ahead of rivals Adakhan Madumarov, who heads United Kyrgyzstan, and Kamchybek Tashiyev, leader of the Fatherland party.
“These elections are very important for Kyrgyzstan,” independent analyst Mars Sariyev said yesterday by phone from Bishkek. “The very process of a peaceful handover of presidential power by Roza Otunbayeva is a precedent for central Asia in general and for Kyrgyzstan in particular.”
The new administration may have to stem political and ethnic tensions that have spilled over into attacks on foreign mining projects in the country. Roza Otunbayeva, who steps down in December, rose to power after Kurmanbek Bakiyev was toppled last April amid protests that led to 99 deaths in the capital, Bishkek. Ethnic clashes between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities followed in the country’s south, killing 435.
Kyrgyzstan’s central Asian neighbors have been ruled by the same leaders for two decades. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been in power since 1991, won 95.5 percent of an April vote, giving him an additional five years at the helm, while Uzbek leader Islam Karimov has ruled since 1990.
Kyrgyzstan’s recent political history has been dogged by political instability, with Bakiyev coming to power in the peaceful 2005 Tulip Revolution before being toppled himself five years later. A referendum backed a switch to a parliamentary democracy last June.
Atambayev, who took over as head of a coalition government last October before stepping down to run for president, may win as much as 57 percent of the vote, according to an Oct. 15 poll by consulting company M-Vector. That would top Madumarov’s 16 percent and Tashiyev’s 10 percent, according to the survey, which questioned 3,650 people and gave no margin of error.
All three candidates are one-time Bakiyev allies. Atambayev went into opposition in 2008, while Madumarov and Tashiyev retained positions in the toppled administration.
Kyrgyzstan’s gross domestic product per capita was $860 last year, 157th globally behind Nicaragua, Yemen and the West Bank and Gaza, according to the World Bank. The economy shrank 1.4 percent in 2010, with about a third of the country’s 5.5 million people living below the poverty line, according to the United Nations Development Programme.
Growth, which is fuelled by agricultural products including cotton and metals such as gold, may reach 7 percent in 2011, the International Monetary Fund forecasts. Unemployment is 8.4 percent, according to official data, with 1 million migrant laborers working abroad.
A firmer political backdrop may help retain foreign investors such as Gold Fields Ltd., which said Oct. 13 it had halted plans to resume drilling at its Talas copper and gold project after horsemen attacked a mining camp and leaders at a nearby village were threatened with death if they cooperate with the company.
“There is a high likelihood of initial protests across the country if Atambayev wins -- which could have short term security implications for investment projects,” Gemma Ferst, an analyst at Eurasia Group in London, said yesterday. “Once protests recede, we expect a calmer period where the new administration seeks to stabilize the country.”
Central-government control over the regions is likely to increase, while the security situation should improve, Ferst said in an e-mailed note.
Aside from investors, the U.S. relies on its Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan to support operations in Afghanistan after Uzbekistan evicted it from its airfield in 2005.
Russia, which also maintains a military installation in the country, is courting former Soviet states as it seeks to create an economic bridge between Europe and Asia, called the Eurasian Union. Atambayev visited Moscow this month to meet Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Last year’s clashes left a legacy of suspicion, and Kyrgyz nationalist rhetoric during this campaign has left minority Uzbeks, who make up 14 percent of the population, mainly in the south, feeling politically marginalized.
Kyrgyzstan also faces a rift between the more developed north and rural, conservative south. International observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s said in an interim report on Oct. 24 that there’s “a general perception that the election might deepen the north/south divide and could potentially destabilize the country.”
Atambayev is from the north and has broader nationwide support than other candidates. Tashiyev and Madumarov are from the south.
--Editors: Andrew Langley, Balazs Penz
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