The people of violence-wracked Kyrgyzstan voted on Sunday on a new constitution that the interim government hopes will legitimize the power it seized after a deadly uprising. The Central Asian nation was on high security alert for the vote, deploying almost 8,000 police officers and an equal number of defense volunteers to keep the peace after ethnic violence that killed hundreds.
Voting at the State University in the city of Osh, where entire neighborhoods were destroyed this month during clashes between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz communities, interim President Roza Otunbayeva said the vote was proof of her country's strength. "In this referendum, the people of Kyrgyzstan are proving that the country is united, standing on its feet and going forward," Otunbayeva said after casting her ballot. "As a people, we want to heal the wounds we have sustained in recent times." By choosing to vote in Osh, the country's second largest city, Otunbayeva seemingly attempted to convey a signal that her country has overcome the instability in the south that has rocked her fragile government over recent months.
The vote _ supported by the U.N., the U.S. and Russia _ is seen as an important step on the road to democracy for the interim government, which came to power after former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was overthrown following deadly street protests in April. But questions remain about how successfully the referendum can be held just weeks after violence left hundreds dead and forced up to 400,000, mainly ethnic Uzbeks, to flee.
In at least two Uzbek neighborhoods of Osh, the turnout was robust within minutes of the polls opening.
At one polling station in central Osh, both Uzbek and Kyrgyz voters were casting ballots, a sign that reconciliation could be taking root.
"We have to support this referendum, because it should not just be the president that takes decisions," said Nazir Mamataliyev, a 55-year-old barber and ethnic Uzbek, who said he voted for the new constitution. "Making choices for our country should be a collective process."
Retired schoolteacher Turdykhan Tadzhibayeva, 70, an ethnic Kyrgyz, was doubtful, saying she regretted the overthrow of Bakiyev. "I don't expect anything of this referendum, because we don't even know what's written in the constitution," Tadzhibayeva said. "In Kyrgyzstan, the people that draw up the law themselves break the law within the space of six months."
The vote is a major test for the provisional government, which faces deep internal divisions and needs the referendum to legitimize its power ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for October. Under the wording on the ballot, a "yes" vote for the new constitution also signifies an endorsement of Otunbayeva's government, which has used its control of the airwaves to encourage broad support.
The government has also scrapped a minimum turnout threshold, meaning the vote will be deemed legitimate no matter what percentage of the 2.4 million registered voters comes to the polls. But a majority "no" vote would further wear away at the new leaders' legitimacy, which has already suffered after they failed to quickly stop the violence in the south.
Asked whether the government would step down if it failed to win majority support in the referendum, interim Finance Minister Terim Sariyev, who was voting in Bishkek, the capital, said they would decide after the ballots are counted.