BISHKEK Kyrgyz voters cast their ballots on Sunday to create the first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia, in an election many hope can unite the country four months after the worst bloodshed in its modern history.
Unique among elections in ex-Soviet Central Asia, dominated by presidential strongmen, voters pinned hopes on parties jostling for enough parliamentary seats to pick a prime minister who will try to bridge political and ethnic rifts.
"Our people do not suffer from amnesia. Our people know their history. They will rise quickly to create a parliamentary republic and protect it themselves," President Roza Otunbayeva said after casting her vote in a music school in Bishkek.
Otunbayeva came to power after a popular revolt in April toppled President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, a former opposition leader who had taken over after his predecessor was chased from office by street protesters in 2005.
After nearly two decades of failed authoritarian rule, interim leaders want to empower a prime minister to restore stability in the former Soviet republic, where clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks killed more than 400 people in June.
"I'm simply fed up with this shambles," Gennady Danilov, 45, said after casting the first vote into a glass box adorned with the Kyrgyz national crest at a school in Bishkek. "I hope that, this time, things might change for the better."
With 29 parties on the ballot, politicians predicted coalition-building will be needed to forge a parliamentary majority with the right to select a prime minister.
"No single party will get enough votes to win a majority in parliament," Omurbek Tekebayev, leader of the Ata Meken party, told reporters after polls closed. "We will have a coalition government, although we do not yet know its composition."
Outside the philharmonia where he spoke in the capital, Ata Meken supporters dressed in red shirts waved flags in time to upbeat party songs blasted from loudspeakers on top of a bus.
The United States, which operates a military air base in the country to support the war in Afghanistan, has vocally embraced the plan to create the first parliamentary democracy.
Russia, which also has an air base in Kyrgyzstan, is an opponent of the parliamentary model, arguing it could expose the country to more violence or a power grab by Islamist militants as rival factions vie for influence.
To guard against fraud, voters' thumbs were stamped with indelible ink, a safeguard against multiple voting.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) stationed 40 long-term observers around the country and a further 200 short-term observers arrived for the vote, part of a total contingent of some 800 observers.
There were some isolated reports of attempted vote-rigging. Presidential chief-of-staff Emilbek Kaptagayev said two election officials in the southern region of Jalalabad had been charged with issuing extra ballot papers.
They could face a seven-year prison term, he said.
Of the 29 registered parties, six were widely expected to attract a large amount of support from Kyrgyzstan's 2.8 million registered voters, just over half of the total population.
"We don't have faith in anyone but ourselves. We're hoping, of course, for better," said 18-year-old Azamat Dzhanaliyev.
Turnout was 57 percent nationwide, the Central Election Commission said. The biggest turnout, 66 percent, was in the southern city of Osh, epicentre of the June violence.
With 20 percent of votes counted, Ata Zhurt, a party with strong support among ethnic Kyrgyz in the south, led the polls with nearly 10 percent of the vote. The Social-Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, led by Almazbek Atambayev, was a close second.
ETHNIC UZBEKS VOTE
Parts of Osh remain in ruins, with many ethnic Uzbeks living in makeshift tents as they attempt to rebuild houses burned in the clashes.
"The new authorities must take into account the mistakes of their predecessors," said Maksat Kalykulov, 41, an unemployed ethnic Kyrgyz in Osh. "They have to find and punish those behind these events, otherwise there will be new clashes."
Janez Lenarcic, director of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, said: "Whatever irregularities or shortcomings appear, they should not be solved in the street. They should be solved through legal and judicial methods."
All 120 parliament seats will be filled through popular voting for party lists. No single party will be allotted more than 65 seats, regardless of its election result.
As well as Ata Zhurt and the Social-Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, the frontrunners include Tekebayev's Ata Meken and the Respublika party, led by Omurbek Babanov. They were placed fifth and third respectively after the early count.
Some parties fiercely oppose the idea of a parliamentary democracy, including Ar-Namys, led by former prime minister Felix Kulov. The party's campaign posters show Kulov shaking hands with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
"Kulov is a military man. My husband is a military man. Military rule means order," said Taisiya Krevenkova, 62, after casting her vote in Bishkek.
Critics fear the vote could still trigger more violence, should disappointed parties take their grievances to the street.
"Everything depends on the wisdom and the political will of the party leaders," said Chynybai Tursunbekov, candidate for the Social-Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan.
"If the leaders decide that our people need stability, that they need a future, they will not take such steps."
(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Osh and Olga Dzyubenko in Bishkek; Editing by Janet Lawrence)