The voters of Kyrgyzstan on Sunday will elect a successor to the president who three months ago fled out the back door of the White House here as protesters clambered over the fence in front.
Voters and analysts have said the new president will likely be Kurmanbek Bakiyev, a polished opposition leader who once served as prime minister to Askar Akayev, the president whose 15-year rule ended abruptly on March 24 when he fled the country with his family, whose growing and conspicuous wealth had fueled public outrage.
Bakiyev, who became acting president in March, appeared to sew up the win weeks ago by coaxing his main rival to join Bakiyev's ticket on a promise of becoming prime minister.
In interviews on both sides of the spectacular Tien Shan mountain range that divides this largely Muslim country of five million people, voters framed the election as a marker for the start of reforms that some detect at the grass roots, but have yet to appear at the national level. After months of protests that teetered on the brink of chaos, they also described the vote as an opportunity to restart a decorous democratic process in a region still largely dominated by authoritarian holdovers from the Soviet era.
On a shady sidewalk in the southern city of Osh, Mederbek Alik , who is unemployed, had just gulped down a bowl of fermented mare's milk, a local delicacy. He recalled that Akayev's downfall followed protests over February parliamentary elections. That campaign was dominated by wealthy candidates who openly bought votes with payments of $5 to $10, or open bars. "Last time we took money, we drank vodka -- we were drunk," said Alik, 26. "But this time it'll be clean."
"We're putting a lot on these elections," said Kadik Sabibor, a bazaar merchant, standing beside him. "We think our lives will improve after these elections."
But change is less evident in the capital, Bishkek. The new parliament of members who bought votes remains in place, along with a supreme court and an election commission both widely decried as corrupt, and all but a half-dozen members of Akayev's presidential office.
"We have a saying that the revolution was made by certain people, but other people made use of it," said Erkina Ubysheva, who heads the Association of Civil Society Support Centers, an office that supports civic groups across the country, and is backed by U.S. aid. "People wanted to see new people, but they saw the same old ones."
T-shirts worn by 3,000 Kyrgyz election monitors are imprinted with, "I stand for free elections." Some 400,000 voter guides published in three languages lay out positions of the six candidates. After Bakiyev, the strongest candidate appears to be the national human rights ombudsman, Tursunbai Bakir Uulu, who is running on a platform of reviving Islamic values.
When Choplon Imanalieva, a physician, was asked what has changed since she joined several thousand fellow citizens in the capital's streets on March 24, she replied: "First, hope." With other physicians, she painted a banner that read "Don't Shoot Our Children," then treated protesters injured by police batons. The experience lifted her spirits. "For the first time in my life, I had a feeling of liberty."
In the weeks that followed, the appetite for public protest grew. Demonstrators gathered almost daily in the city's main plaza. When thousands of the rural poor descended on Bishkek to squat on government land, democracy activist Edil Baisalov phoned the acting government to urge a crackdown on the squatters, who were eventually mollified with promises of orderly land transfers. "It was feeding instability and insecurity," said Baisalov. "There were these fears that after March 25 the mob would run the country."
Baisalov, who said he found inspiration for the campaign against Akayev in the weeks-long, orderly revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, despaired at "this primitive notion of democracy, even among the political class." He added, "Democracy was not conferred on us March 24. It will not drop down from the sky on July 10. It's hard work. It demands due diligence."