By Olga Dzyubenko
BISHKEK (Reuters) - The main contenders in Kyrgyzstan's presidential election refused on Monday to attend a ceremony to sign a "code of honor" aimed at limiting disorder during polling in the volatile Central Asian state.
The code, backed by the OSCE and USAID, bans drugs, alcohol and weapons at rallies and says candidates must respect Kyrgyz laws.
"We don't need this ceremony. We have our own constitution and laws," said Almambet Matubraimov, one of 10 candidates who turned up at the ceremony. Only eight signed the pledge.
Neither Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev, a leading candidate for the presidency, nor his main rivals were there.
The election, which analysts say will need a second round, pits Atambayev against heavyweight rivals from the south of the country of 5.5 million people, where central government's grip on power is tenuous.
Kyrgyzstan hosts U.S. and Russian military air bases.
President Roza Otunbayeva, who leads the interim government that took power after the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010, will step down on December 31, and the October 30 vote is the culmination of constitutional reform since then.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has sent 28 long-term election observers to Kyrgyzstan and a further 350 observers will monitor the vote.
DIVISION AND UNREST
Two decades after independence from the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan, bordering China and on a drug-trafficking route from Afghanistan, remains culturally and ethnically divided.
As well as divisions between the more developed north and poorer south, tensions persist between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south after the violent clashes that killed more than 400 people in June 2010.
The new model of government, which replaces nearly two decades of failed authoritarian rule, makes parliament the main decision-making body in Kyrgyzstan.
A fragile coalition government, led by Atambayev, is attempting to entrench the first parliamentary democracy in a region otherwise governed by strongman presidents.
But some politicians oppose this model of government. Those with links to the Bakiyev government have a groundswell of support in the ousted president's southern strongholds. Bakiyev himself is now exiled in Belarus.
Atambayev's main challengers, say analysts, will be two politicians who enjoy strong support from Kyrgyz nationalists in the south: Kamchibek Tashiyev, who represents the Ata Zhurt (Motherland) party; and Adakhan Madumarov, leader of the Butun Kyrgyzstan (United Kyrgyzstan) party.
The final list of 20 candidates eliminated three quarters of the 83 hopefuls who applied to run for president, a group that had included retired army officers, scientists and the jobless.
Most fell foul of requirements to present at least 30,000 signatures, pay a deposit and pass a public Kyrgyz language test in a country where Russian is still the first language for many.
Kyrgyz television stations have been temporarily forbidden from broadcasting foreign news that could be seen to affect the outcome of the election. Most foreign news programs broadcast in Kyrgyzstan are from Russia.
In the first sign of pre-election maneuvering, a would-be contender effectively threw his weight behind Atambayev by withdrawing from the race shortly before the final list was published, despite having fulfilled the necessary criteria.
Ata Meken (Fatherland) party leader Omurbek Tekebayev, nicknamed "Father of the Constitution," explained his decision in a statement as a means of "consolidating and strengthening the unity of democratic forces." He did not mention Atambayev.
Should no single candidate win more than 50 percent of the vote, the two leading candidates will stage a run-off election after a minimum period of two weeks has elapsed.
"It's obvious that there will be a second round," said Alexander Kulinsky, spokesman for Tekebayev, before forecasting an Atambayev victory "by a whisker."
Political and military analyst Toktogul Kakchekeyev, however, forecast that Atambayev's experience in current and previous governments could help him win the first round.
Future presidents of Kyrgyzstan will be limited to a single six-year term, but will have the right to appoint the defense minister and the national security head.
(Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Louise Ireland)