BISHKEK/OSH (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan’s leader said on Sunday the country had voted to create Central Asia’s first parliamentary democracy, in a landmark referendum only two weeks after an explosion of ethnic bloodshed killed hundreds.
Roza Otunbayeva said Kyrgyzstan had embarked on a path to establishing a “true people’s democracy” in contrast to previous presidential systems in the former Soviet republic. She made her comments before the release of preliminary official results.
“The new constitution of the Kyrgyz republic has been approved,” Otunbayeva told a news conference in the capital Bishkek after earlier voting amid heavy security at a university in Osh, her home city and epicentre of the violent clashes.
“We are proud of our people. We are proud of our country, which made this choice at a difficult hour.”
At least 283 people, and possibly hundreds more, died this month in violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic that hosts U.S. and Russian military air bases and shares a border with China.
Results from more than half of all polling stations showed 89.7 percent had voted in favour of change, the Central Election Commission said on its website, www.shailoo.gov.kg.
“The figures speak for themselves. So far it has been roughly 90 percent ‘yes’ and 10 percent against. In principle, this early score is likely to stay largely unchanged,” the head of the commission, Akylbek Sariyev, told Reuters.
Under the new charter, Otunbayeva — the first woman to lead a Central Asian state — will be acting president until the end of 2011. Parliamentary elections will be held every five years and the president limited to a single six-year term.
The United States and Russia say they would support a strong government to prevent the turmoil spreading throughout Central Asia, a region bordering Afghanistan in which all countries have until now been run by authoritarian presidents.
“We hope that this is an effective step towards stable, democratic governance. We welcome the calm orderly process, but await final polling results,” a U.S. State Department spokesman said.
The referendum asked voters to support changes to the constitution that will devolve power from the president to a prime minister, paving the way for parliamentary elections in October and diplomatic recognition for the interim government.
No minimum turnout was required. Otunbayeva said 65 percent of the electorate had voted and the central election commission, citing incomplete data, later put the figure at 69 percent.
Otunbayeva, a former ambassador to the United States and Britain, took power after a revolt in April overthrew President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Though from the south, she has struggled to gain control of the region, Bakiyev’s family stronghold.
In a clear reference to her predecessor, Otunbayeva said: “Today the nation said: ‘No to family clan regimes’.”
From his exile in Belarus, Bakiyev has earlier dismissed the referendum and the leader who replaced him, saying her behaviour was “frivolous and irresponsible.”
“She is leading the country into a dead end,” he said in an interview in the online edition of German weekly Der Spiegel.
The bloodshed deepened divisions between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks who have roughly equal shares of the population in the south.
Many ethnic Uzbeks said they were targeted in the violence and were loath to support the referendum, seeing it as a Kyrgyz initiative. But some Uzbeks voted early in the day, and friends who had not seen each other since the bloodshed began on June 10 embraced in polling-station queues in neighbourhoods of Osh.
“We have to live through this turbulent period, but when we get a real government it will all be stable again,” said Andrei Abdullayev, an Uzbek veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, who voted in a disused vodka distillery.
Otunbayeva said every member of the interim government would resign and that she would appoint a caretaker leadership pending the October elections. She also said around 100,000 refugees from the violence had returned to live in Osh and Jalalabad.
Farida Marasulayeva was one of them. “Maybe someone will help us. We just want to live in peace,” she said after voting in Osh, cradling her year-old son in her arms.
Election officials accompanied by armed guards carried transparent ballot boxes to locals who were too afraid to visit the polling stations, ticking off names as the boxes filled up.
“They all fear for their lives,” said Nigora Abdyjanarova, an election official who carried a ballot box from door to door.
Interim government spokesman Farid Niyazov said a curfew that was lifted for the vote had been reinstated until August 10.
With violence still a threat, Otunbayeva said she would support the arrival of an OSCE police contingent to help maintain stability in the south of the Central Asian republic.
The 56-nation Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declined to send observers to Osh due to security concerns. But an official for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has backed an international police presence.
“The government views this favourably,” Otunbayeva said.
Additional reporting by Olga Dzyubenko in Bishkek, Sarah Marsh in Berlin and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Jon Boyle