Kyrgyzstan's president vowed Saturday that this weekend's parliamentary elections will be held in a spirit of fairness and transparency, ushering in a new era of democracy in the former Soviet state.
Sunday's elections to choose a newly empowered legislature come after an exhausting year of political turbulence and ethnic violence in the south. President Roza Otunbayeva said in a televised address to the nation that any attempts to create new unrest would be firmly dealt with by the security forces.
In June, violent clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks left more than 400 people dead, most of them Uzbeks, and displaced around 400,000 people. Many in the Uzbek community say they are still being victimized by security forces and discriminately targeted in the investigation into the clashes.
"We have overcome the crisis and now, especially after the election, with every passing day we will move toward stability, the rise of the economy and the improvement of people's lives," Otunbayeva said.
Kyrgyzstan, which hosts a strategically vital U.S. air base near Afghanistan, is set to embrace a parliamentary system of governance, marking a sharp departure from the strongman model exercised under President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted in April amid violent public demonstrations.
Of the 29 parties in the running, around half a dozen are expected to gain seats. No party is likely to win much more than 15 percent of the vote, meaning a coalition government is inevitable.
Under the new arrangement, parliament will pick a prime minister and play a key role in forming the government.
The elections have pitted a group of parties backing the recently amended constitution boosting the power of the legislature against parties that aim to restore the authority of the presidency.
Polls show both potential camps are running a close race, although the final makeup of the coalition may be subject to protracted negotiations.
Elections chief Akylbek Sariyev told The Associated Press that definitive results might not be available until three days after polls close.
Acting President Roza Otunbayeva, who is set to take on a more formal role as head of state, warned against trying to protest results in the streets and urged political parties to address any grievances in the courts.
The openness and vibrancy of the electoral process is unprecedented in the former Soviet Central Asian region, where most countries are ruled by deeply authoritarian governments.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's election monitoring arm has expressed upbeat assessments on preparations for the vote.
"So far, all 29 contesting parties have been able to campaign freely without major incidents," the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or ODIHR, said in its latest interim report.
Election officials say the vote will be overseen by a record number of international observers _ 850 monitors from 32 organizations. Among those, ODIHR has deployed more than 320 observers, which the international community hopes will prove instrumental to ensuring the election meets democratic standards.
Despite overall positive expectations, ODIHR has said concerns remain that persisting tensions in the south, which was riven by ethnic turmoil earlier this year, could discourage many in the minority ethnic Uzbek community from casting their ballot.
Associated Press writer Yuras Karmanau in Bishkek contributed to this report.