Bishkek: Nationalists on Monday unexpectedly emerged as the strongest force in Kyrgyzstan`s closely-fought elections, hailed by the authorities as the first democratic polls in the troubled state for 20 years.
The country awaited coalition bartering between five parties set to win Parliament seats following the highly competitive polls, a scenario unknown in a region of strongman presidents and rubber-stamp parliaments.
The emergence of the virulently nationalist Ata-Zhurt party -- whose leader has warned non-ethnic Kyrgyz citizens not to expect equal rights -- was a surprise and renewed concerns of a resurgence of year`s deadly ethnic unrest.
Clashes between ethnic-majority Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks left between 400 and 2,000 people dead in the south of the country in June, with Uzbeks claiming they were the victims of targeted bloodletting by the security forces.
But Kyrgyzstan President Roza Otunbayeva -- who steadfastly refused to push back the poll despite warnings it could spark fresh violence -- hailed the elections as a landmark moment in the turbulent history of the ex-Soviet state.
"We have not known such elections for the last 20 years," Otunbayeva said after a robust turnout of 56.59 percent.
"Today, all Kyrgyz people can vote without pressure, without dictation and without any manipulation for those parties which they consider to be the most powerful, fair, and that would protect their interests in Parliament."
Kyrgyzstan created Central Asia`s first parliamentary democracy in a referendum earlier this year after the bloody April revolution which toppled former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev and deadly inter-ethnic clashes in June.
The Zhogorku Kenesh will be the only Parliament in the region with the powers to appoint the government and have a real influence on policy.
But in a rebuke to the provisional government that has led the country since an April uprising that ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, opposition parties polled strongly.
In line with the new Kyrgyz regulations, the central election commission gave the figures as a percentage of the total electorate and not of those who actually cast their ballots on the day.
The Ata-Zhurt party was just ahead in the vote count with some 8.67 percent of the vote, results published by the central election commission said based on 91.56 percent of electoral precincts.
The pro-government Social Democratic Party, which had been expected to poll well, was close behind on 8.09 percent.
The pro-Moscow Ar-Namys party led by former prime minister Felix Kulov earlier proclaimed victory in the elections, but results showed it securing a respectable third place with 7.25 percent.
The opposition Republic Party was in fourth on 7.06 percent.
Another big shock was the weakness of pro-government faction Ata-Meken, which just days ago was expected to take first place, coming in fifth with 5.87 percent.
If the preliminary results pan out there would be five parties to enter the Zhogorku Kenesh Parliament, where a minimum threshold of five percent of the vote is required to take seats.
"The results of the Parliamentary Elections in Kyrgyzstan reflect a real picture of the sentiment in the country," said Mars Sariyev, a Bishkek-based independent political analyst.
"This is a great move forward. For the first time in 20 years there have been fair elections."
Ata-Zhurt, the bulk of whose votes came from ethnic Kyrgyz in the south, courted controversy throughout the elections and days before the polls an angry crowd raided its Bishkek office, burning campaign literature in the street.
Its leader, former minister Kamchybek Tashiyev, however denounced a video purportedly showing he wanted to bring Bakiyev back to power as a fabrication.
The only country in the world to host both Russian and US military bases, Kyrgyzstan stands at a strategic location bordering China and close enough to Afghanistan to serve as a crucial supply hub for US forces.
Kyrgyzstan has for years been the most unstable in the region and Bakiyev, who has taken refuge in Belarus since his ousting, himself came to power on the back of the so-called Tulip Revolution uprising of 2005.