Kyrgyzstan is electing its President on Sunday in a hotly-contested race that could either propel the impoverished republic towards becoming the first Western-type democracy in ex-Soviet Central Asia or deepen the split between the north and the south and reignite ethnic strife.

Kyrgyz voters have 16 presidential candidates to choose from — a motley collection of Ministers, party leaders and self-nominated contestants who were able to collect 30,000 signatures in their support and pay a registration fee roughly equivalent to $3,000.

There are three front-runners in the race, and analysts find it hard to predict the election outcome — for the first time in the authoritarian history of Central Asia. Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev (55) is the most favoured candidate but it is not clear whether he can get 50 per cent of the vote, needed to win in the first round. In the run-off he will face one of his two main rivals — the former Parliament Speaker, Adakhan Madumarov (46), or 44-year old ex-Emergency Services Minister Kamchibek Tashiyev.

The election line-up reflects the all-too-familiar divide in Kyrgyzstan between northern and southern clans, with Mr. Atambayev seen as a northerner and his two rivals hailing from the south. Two days before the vote tough-speaking Mr. Tashiyev issued a stern warning of “bloodshed” and popular revolt in the south if the election is falsified. This revived fears of a repetition of anti-Uzbek riots that rocked Kyrgyzstan's southern region in June 2010, when hundreds were killed and many thousands were displaced.

The new Constitution adopted last year turned Kyrgyzstan from a presidential to a parliamentary republic, but most presidential candidates have vowed to amend the basic law to strengthen presidential powers.

Russia, the most influential player in Kyrgyzstan where it has a military base, has thrown its weight behind Mr. Atambayev, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hosting him in Moscow in the run-up to the election. Mr. Atambayev has promised to close the U.S. airbase near the capital, Bishkek, after 2014, but experts think that no matter who wins the Sunday vote Kyrgyzstan will continue to manoeuvre between its main donors — Russia, the U.S. and China.

There are three million eligible voters among Kyrgyzstan's population of 5.5 million, but far from all of them will be able to vote. Many of the estimated 350,000 internal migrants who fled last year's violence do not have identity papers, and almost 700,000 Kyrgyz migrant workers in Russia will have only three polling stations at Kyrgyz consulates to vote.

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