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World News

Russian ally Kyrgyzstan holds election on Sunday amid wave of discontent

BISHKEK (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan, Russia’s closest ally in Central Asia, will vote in a parliamentary election on Sunday amid signs of widespread disaffection with the ruling elite.

FILE PHOTO: Russia's President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Kyrgyzstan's President Sooronbay Jeenbekov during a meeting in Sochi, Russia September 28, 2020. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

Potential unrest in the impoverished mountainous nation could add to the woes of the Kremlin, which faces sanctions over the suspected poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a political crisis in Belarus and conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Hundreds of people staged an “independence march” protest in the capital Bishkek on Sunday after a video surfaced online in which a pro-presidential party leader spoke of a need to integrate more closely with Russia.

President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, who met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Monday, suggested the protesters were working against the 6.5 million population of the former Soviet republic, which hosts a Russian military air base.

“Forces opposed to the stability and development of our country have stepped up their activity on the eve of the election,” he said.

The country has a history of instability: in the past 15 years, two presidents have been toppled by revolts and a third is in prison after falling out with his successor.

A vote against all parties was the most popular choice of respondents to a rare nationwide opinion poll conducted on behalf of the U.S.-backed International Republican Institute in August. The poll also showed 53% of respondents believed the country was headed in the wrong direction.

Respondents chose unemployment and the COVID-19 pandemic as their top concerns. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development expects Kyrgyzstan’s gross domestic product to plunge 9.5% this year, its worst performance in 20 years.

Many of the 16 parties contesting 120 seats in the unicameral legislature are new and two of the three parties which led the IRI poll are now defunct.

One of them is the Social Democratic party which won most seats in the previous vote and backed Jeenbekov but split after a rift between him and ex-president Almazbek Atambayev.

Kyrgyz political analyst Mars Sariyev said government opponents were trying to promote voting against all. If they succeed, “there will be protests and repeat elections”, he said.

If more people vote against everyone than for any one party, Kyrgyz law stipulates the vote must be repeated.

Reporting by Olga Dzyubenko; writing by Olzhas Auyezov; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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