Voters turned out in force Sunday in Kyrgyzstan to choose a new and empowered parliament that the government hopes will usher in an unprecedented era of democracy.
This former Soviet nation, which hosts a vital U.S. air base near Afghanistan, is set to embrace a parliamentary system of governance in a largely untroubled vote that has won praise from the United States.
The vote came after an exhausting year of political turbulence and ethnic violence in the south.
A fair vote among the 29 competing parties and the creation of a strong legislature would set Kyrgyzstan apart from the other former Soviet republics in Central Asia, where power is usually held by authoritarian and unaccountable leaders. A democratic Kyrgyzstan would also create a sense of unease in the neighboring countries and may help nurture the seedlings of democratic ideals.
Once the votes are counted, the political parties will have to begin the novel procedure of working out how to share power. Under the new system, the parliament will have to come to an agreement on forming a government and pick a prime minister.
"The political players have a very scant idea of how exactly events will unfold after the elections," said political analyst Marat Kazakbayev.
Interim President Roza Otunbayeva, who has battled to keep her country from the edge of disintegration, will now take on a more formal role as head of state.
Security was tight for the vote in a bid to prevent any possible outbreaks of unrest.
After casting her ballot in the capital, Bishkek, Otunbayeva said the fair conduct of the vote precluded any possibility for protests.
"The whole election process has been transparent and open, which will deprive troublemakers of the right to whip up political hysteria," she said.
Even so, the country was abuzz all day with rumors of planned protests against an outcome that has not yet even been announced.
All eyes were on the southern cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad, where violent clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks in June left more than 400 people dead, most of them Uzbeks, and displaced around 400,000 people.
The election marks a sharp departure from the strongman model exercised under President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted in April amid violent public demonstrations over stagnant living standards and corruption. Bakiyev, like his counterparts in other Central Asian nations, maintained a tight grip over all levers of political life and worked hard to quash all opposition.
Bakiyev had come to power in 2005 following street protests known as the Tulip Revolution.
Heading to a polling station at the agriculture institute in Osh, 49-year-old history teacher Ermek Suleimanov said the vote was a turning point for the country.
"If in the past voting was just a formality, now we will find out who the people really want to lead them," Suleimanov said.
Within hours, transparent ballot boxes were filled with the two-foot-long voting sheets listing the dozens of parties taking part, a vivid testament to the broad choice on offer.
International observers had worried that persisting tensions in the south could discourage many in the ethnic Uzbek community from casting their ballot.
The Central Election Commission announced that by the closing of the polls more than 55 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballot. Although that turnout is lower than usual in Kyrgyzstan, it is a counter-intuitive demonstration of political engagement, as there was no evidence during this vote of people being coerced into voting.
Speaking in Osh, Janez Lenarcic, who heads the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's election monitoring arm, said he was encouraged by the peaceful conduct of the election.
The risk going forward is that losing parties may refuse to address their electoral grievances through legal channels, but instead take to the streets.
"It is important that (the voter's) will is reflected in the results and, ultimately, it is extremely important that everybody accepts such results," Lenarcic said.
Although voter turnout appeared high in ethnic Uzbek suburbs of Osh, some were cynical about what real progress the vote could guarantee.
"I don't trust any of them. Nobody can assure safety," said Bakhrom Usanov, 34, adding that he chose to spoil his ballot instead of voting.
In the Uzbek neighborhoods that were attacked and burned down by Kyrgyz mobs, many people were hard at work Sunday rebuilding their homes _ a key priority as winter approaches.
In a show of Washington's backing for the vote, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake told Radio Free Europe's Kyrgyz service that the elections could become a model for the entire region. Last month, President Barack Obama's administration announced it had earmarked $5 million to help Kyrgyzstan organize its elections.
Of the 29 parties in the running for the 120 seats available, around half a dozen are expected to gain seats. No party is likely to win much more than 15 percent of the vote or can be allotted more than 65 seats, meaning a coalition government is unavoidable.
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. The pro-constitution camps include Ata-Meken and Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, while their most prominent opponents are Ata-Zhurt, who are particularly popular in the south.
Polls show both potential camps are running a close race, although the final makeup of the coalition may be subject to tortured negotiations.
"Politicians in Kyrgyzstan have little idea about the essence of democracy. They do not know how to negotiate or to compromise," said Bishkek-based political analyst Mars Sariyev.
Even if that hurdle is overcome, doomsayers predict more calamities could still loom on the horizon.
"If the parliament operates inefficiently, Kyrgyzstan can expect a third revolution," Kazabayev said
Associated Press writers Yuras Karmanau and Leila Saralayeva contributed to this report from Bishkek.