BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan, Feb. 26 -- In this Central Asian republic, long a relatively democratic light surrounded by post-Soviet dictatorships and China, people go to the polls Sunday in the first of two rounds of voting for a new parliament. The elections may prove critical in determining the future of one man who is not on the ballot: President Askar Akayev.
A former scientist who was thrust into power after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Akayev became independent Kyrgyzstan's first president. He was originally hailed as a reforming democrat but in later years sought to centralize power.
President Askar Akayev cannot seek another term under Kyrgyzstan's current constitution.
Akayev is prevented by the constitution from seeking another term in elections scheduled for October. But with a two-thirds majority in parliament, he could have the constitution amended or push through a national referendum on the issue. If Akayev steps down, however, Kyrgyzstan would emerge as a powerful counterexample in a region in which leaders have rarely left office through constitutional means.
"The most important political question is the problem of whether the president leaves, and to me, it's obvious he's not going," said Muratbeck Imanaliev, a former foreign minister and professor at the American University in Bishkek, the capital. "The people are very tired, but the president's circle seems very determined to stay, and the battle will begin in parliament."
Nearly 400 candidates are running in 75 single-seat parliament districts. Many of the contests are likely to go to a second round of voting March 13 between the top two finishers in each race. Five groups from the previously fragmented opposition have formed a coalition in the campaign, a possible step toward backing a single candidate for president.
"I hope that after the parliamentary elections, we will sit down and begin planning our strategy for October," said Roza Otunbaeva, head of the Fatherland movement and a former ambassador to the United States. Otunbaeva was prevented from running for parliament because of a requirement that candidates must have lived in the country for the last five years. She had planned to run against Akayev's daughter in a district in the capital. The president's son and his wife's two sisters are also running for seats.
Kyrgyzstan, a multiethnic country of 5 million people with an independent, nomadic tradition and a brand of Islam tolerant of women's rights and religious pluralism, has a markedly different political complexion than its authoritarian neighbors. The country's openness, much of it seeded by Akayev, has led to speculation that any attempt by the president to fix the elections or hold onto power might trigger a popular revolt along the lines of the 2003 "rose revolution" in Georgia or the "orange revolution" last year in Ukraine, according to opposition figures.
"People have this protest energy, and it's growing," said Zhypar Zheksheev, a candidate running against the president's son. "They will not give up their democracy."
In a series of recent statements, Akayev has warned against foreign attempts to foment a revolution. People "attempting to launch 'velvet revolutions' in Kyrgyzstan need to take into account the distinct national features of the Central Asian region," he said last month. "Such tactics meant to change a regime can bring about civil war."
The United States and Russia both have military bases in Kyrgyzstan, just 25 miles apart, but they have not engaged in the harsh political rhetoric over the country's direction as they did over Ukraine. Russian leaders have invited Akayev and opposition figures to Moscow, in sharp contrast to the Kremlin's open backing of one side in Ukraine. And the United States has said it does not support individual parties or candidates but has provided about $2.7 million in aid to assist the broad electoral process, including funding for nongovernmental organizations.
Campaigning has been marred by the government's domination of broadcast media, harassment of the independent press and its refusal to allow some opposition candidates, including Otunbaeva, to run, according to international observers and opposition parties.
But there have been no reports of systematic repression. In recent days, opposition supporters have taken to the streets and blocked a key highway to China to protest the last-minute removal of some candidates who were already on the ballot. The government has not intervened to squash the protest.
Officials bristle at international allegations that Akayev is rolling back the country's democratic gains.
"Representatives of the American government talk like old Soviet commissars. They tell us what to do and then pull out their wallets to threaten us," Osmonakun Ibraimov, the country's secretary of state and the second-highest official in the executive branch, said in an interview, referring to what he said were threats to reduce or withdraw U.S. aid over alleged abuses. "It's embarrassing."
"We have shortcomings, yes, but we are building our democracy," he said, adding that he believed that Akayev would step down.
Ibraimov said two "stupid" decisions made by government ministries would be reversed: the recent cut of electricity to an independent printing house that the United States helped fund, and an announcement that the government would re-auction the wave band used by Radio Liberty, effectively shutting down the U.S.-funded service.
"It's an artificial issue," Ibraimov said. "We are not so dumb, and I can tell you definitely that Radio Liberty will continue to broadcast in Kyrgyzstan."