Kyrgyzstan presidential election winner Almazbek Atambayev's moment of glory was soured Monday by a stinging assessment from international vote monitors and news of protests in the turbulent south of the country.
Preliminary returns from nearly all precincts have shown Atambayev winning over 60 percent of votes in Sunday's election, easily pushing aside his closest rivals.
International observers said that the Kyrgyz elections were held in a peaceful manner, offered a wide choice of candidates and followed an open and free campaign. At the same time, monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized irregularities on election day.
"What we observed also made clear that serious action is needed to ensure integrity of voting, counting and tabulation," said Corien Jonker, head of the election observation mission of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.
Jonker said many people were not included on the voter lists, making them unable to vote. She said better compiled voter lists could have ensured a greater turnout than the 60 percent reported by Kyrgyz electoral officials.
The OSCE report also noted cases of ballot box stuffing, multiple and family voting, vote-buying, and bussing of voters.
Kyrgyzstan earned international plaudits last year for holding a parliamentary election that was deemed to be the first ever fair and free contest in the ex-Soviet Central Asian nation's history. That election was the first step on the country's tentative path toward developing into a more accountable parliamentary model as enshrined in a new constitution adopted last year.
While observers would not be drawn on whether this presidential election marked a backward trend, the OSCE clearly indicated that it felt the Kyrgyz authorities could have performed better.
"I would like to stress that we had hoped for a better election. It is disappointing that the problems on election day meant that this election did not live up to the democratic promise resulting from the adoption of the new constitution," Jonker said.
President Barack Obama congratulated Kyrgyzstan for the election results. "In casting their ballots, the Kyrgyz people have taken an important and courageous step on the path of democracy and demonstrated their commitment to an orderly and open transition of power," Obama said in a statement Monday.
The U.S. maintains a strategically vital air base in Kyrgyzstan that provides logistical support for NATO in Afghanistan.
Outgoing President Roza Otunbayeva, who has been running the country since April 2010, when former authoritarian leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev was overthrown in a popular uprising, will step down for the winner, setting the stage for the first peaceful transition of power in the ex-Soviet nation's turbulent post-independence history.
Although there is limited evidence of mass fraud having taken place, defeated candidates have expressed their determination to dispute the result, questioning the preliminary results showing Atambayev with more than 63 percent _ well above the simple majority needed to avoid a runoff.
The main challengers _ Kamchibek Tashiyev and Adakhan Madumarov _ both nationalists from the southern part of the country, have pointed at alleged violations, including ballot box stuffing and repeat voting.
Southern Kyrgyzstan, a major transit area for Afghan heroin trafficking, was devastated last summer by deadly ethnic clashes that killed almost 500 people, mainly ethnic Uzbeks. As the ethnic violence fueled nationalist sentiments within the country, Tashiyev and Madumarov saw their support bases grow.
Tashiyev warned Monday that he would not accept the outcome of the vote and predicted public unrest. "The people must decide for themselves what authorities they want _ fake ones or real ones," he said.
The specter of a new wave of protests will cause profound anxiety in a country still unstable due to the political and ethnic violence of recent years.
Tashiyev has repeatedly attempted to distance himself from suggestions he would personally lead any mass protests. It was unclear if he was linked to a group of people that marched Monday afternoon onto a highway linking his hometown in southern Kyrgyzstan, Jalal-Abad, to the capital, Bishkek. Local journalists reported that the crowd numbered several hundred and included many well-built young men.
Earlier in the day, Atambayev's opponents in the south issued a petition protesting his alleged manipulation of state resources in the elections. Atambayev, who stepped aside as prime minister last month to take part in campaigning, is a leading member of the governing coalition and a close ally of Otunbayeva.