Kyrgyzstan was voting Sunday in a parliamentary election as observers warned that the economic blowback from the coronavirus epidemic has laid fertile ground for vote buying and possible post-poll protests.
Sixteen parties are competing for seats in the 120-member legislature, with several positioning themselves in opposition to President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, a loyal ally of Russia.
Jeenbekov, 61, will be hoping for a cooperative parliament as he plans for life after his single permitted term ends in 2023, knowing that his predecessor and former protege Almazbek Atambayev is currently languishing in jail.
The coronavirus pandemic has battered modest incomes in Kyrgyzstan, the second poorest of the countries to gain independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and many observers warn the stage is set for massive ballot fraud by some well-resourced parties.
The European Bank of Reconstruction and Development has projected GDP could fall by 9.5 percent in 2020, while trade with next-door China, an economic lifeline for the landlocked republic, has fallen by more than half since the start of the year.
Jeenbekov, who met Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Sochi ahead of the polls, said on Saturday that Kyrgyzstan would not repeat a lockdown despite rising virus cases.
He also appeared to criticise opposition parties "who gathered big numbers of people, 500 to 1,000" as part of their electoral campaigns.
"Then they start saying authorities are putting pressure on them, taking away votes, and preventing them from working," Jeenbekov told state radio.
- Vote-buying accusations -
Critics however say it is pro-government parties such as the Birimdik party that includes Jeenbekov's younger brother Asylbek Jeenbekov who pose a risk of vote-buying.
One video shared on social media Sunday alleged the party had paid voters to wear specific face masks to help identify them to polling station staff.
These voters were then handed a ballot with Birimdik already ticked, the video claimed.
A Birimdik legal representative told AFP the party "does not engage in vote-buying" or put "pressure" on voters.
The president and his predecessor Atambayev were former allies who fell out. Atambayev's arrest on corruption charges last year came despite an attempt to make peace between the pair by Putin.
But analysts believe Russia, a destination for hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz migrants and the operator of a military base in the country, can be confident of Kyrgyzstan's continued loyalty whatever happens in the vote.
That is because "parties understand that our presidents are made with Russia's blessing," Rita Karasartova, a candidate for the outsider Reforma party, told AFP.
- Two revolutions -
Kyrgyzstan's parliament was given new powers in a 2010 constitutional overhaul that also limited any single party to a maximum of 65 out of 120 seats in the legislature.
The constitution was passed on the heels of a popular uprising -- the second since independence -- and was designed to curb authoritarianism.
But with the stakes high, many fear pro-government parties will look to muscle opposition forces out of the legislature, a move that could trigger protests.
A form that allows citizens to change their place of voting has come under particular scrutiny, with critics saying it enables parties to coordinate vote buying campaigns.
"It (enables) corruption. It helps (parties) to buy people. We need to get rid of this," said Oleg Kenzheev, 59 and unemployed.
The Central Election Commission said nearly 500,000 of the 3.5 million electorate changed their place of voter registration ahead of the polls.
Birimdik's closest rival in the vote is believed to be Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (My Homeland Kyrgyzstan), a wealthy party associated with a powerful clan whose figurehead Rayimbek Matraimov -- a former customs service official -- was the target of anti-corruption protests last year.
One party not expected to make the parliament is the Social Democrats led by supporters of Atambayev, who was sentenced to 11 years in jail in June and has been charged in the murder of a special forces officer during an assault on the former president's compound last year.
Yana Aliyeva, a 35-year-old doctor, told AFP she would vote for the party due to Atambayev's "bright personality" and the infrastructure projects -- mostly backed with Chinese loans -- that were completed during his reign.
Polls opened at 0200 GMT and will close at 1400 GMT, with first results expected late on Sunday.