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Nationalist politician likely to win Kyrgyz presidential vote

Presidential candidate Sadyr Japarov and his wife Aigul pose for a picture after casting their ballots at a polling station during a presidential election and constitutional referendum in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan Jan. 10.   © Reuters

BISHKEK (Reuters) -- Nationalist politician Sadyr Japarov appears poised to win Kyrgyzstan's presidential election on Sunday, a snap vote triggered by the collapse of the previous government in the Central Asian nation closely allied with Russia.

Violent protests which erupted last October sprung Japarov, 52, from a prison cell to the prime minister's chair and culminated in him assuming the interim presidency, although he later gave it up to run for a full-time role.

Japarov, who had been sentenced to a lengthy prison term for kidnapping a provincial governor as part of a protest, had his verdict quashed amid the October unrest and has outspent his 16 competitors by a wide margin during the campaign.

Despite his nationalist stance -- Japarov's first act as prime minister was to add ethnicity information to national ID cards -- he has repeatedly pledged to maintain a close relationship with former Soviet overlord Moscow.

"Russia is our strategic partner," Japarov said after casting his ballot in a suburb of capital Bishkek.

Sadyr Japarov, Kyrgyzstan's Prime Minister and presidential candidate, applauds during a campaign rally ahead of the presidential election in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Jan. 8.   © Reuters

Russia operates a military airbase in the mountainous nation and is also the main destination for hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz migrant labourers.

Neighbouring China is another key trade partner and investor in the impoverished and predominantly Muslim nation which, in addition to electing a president, votes on Sunday on whether to give greater presidential powers at parliament's expense.

Japarov's prison sentence stems from his campaign in the early 2010s to nationalise the giant Kumtor gold mine operated by Canada's Centerra Gold. After coming to power last year, however, he said that was no longer a goal and he would only seek to ensure profits from the mine are split fairly.

Japarov's campaign which combined references to traditional symbols and values with promises such as doubling healthcare spending appears to have struck a chord with voters across the country, especially in rural areas.

According to local pollsters, he enjoys a comfortable lead over competitors and could potentially win more than 50% of the vote, thus avoiding a runoff.

At the polling station, Japarov declined to speculate about the outcome of the vote, but urged all groups to accept it in order to preserve stability.

Members of a local electoral commission carry mobile ballot box while visiting local residents during early voting as the election of Kyrgyz president and a referendum on the form of government are held in the village of Koy-Tash near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan Jan. 9.   © Reuters

Kyrgyzstan has a history of political volatility. Before toppling the government of President Sooronbai Jeenbekov last October, similar violent protests deposed presidents in 2010 and 2005. Another former head of state, Almazbek Atambayev, is under arrest on corruption charges.

"I voted against everyone because it makes no difference for ordinary people who is in charge, everyone lies to us," said Bakyt, a 52-year-old power engineer who only gave his first name.

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