BISHKEK, Oct 21 (Reuters) Kyrgyzstan voted today in a constitutional referendum designed to ease tensions in the Central Asian state but criticised by the opposition as a step toward authoritarianism because it increases presidential power.
Independent local observers said the official turnout of 80 per cent was inflated and reported cases of ballot stuffing. Election officials denied there were major irregularities.
Home to a US and a Russian military base, the Muslim state has been unstable since 2005 when protests ousted veteran leader Askar Akayev and brought President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to power.
While handing parliament broader responsibilities, the proposed changes give Bakiyev leeway in picking key officials and pave the way for his party to gain a base in the chamber.
''People are the real power. After all the debate people will draw a line under it ... and express their point of view,'' Bakiyev said after casting his ballot in the capital Bishkek. ''I am convinced political speculation and games will end at this.'' At loggerheads with a parliament that was elected in a disputed poll under Akayev's rule, Bakiyev is expected to call an early parliamentary election if the referendum is passed.
Elected in a 2005 vote judged free and fair by Western monitors, Bakiyev is regarded as a liberal among his more hard-line Central Asian neighbours.
But the opposition, once the main driving force behind anti-Bakiyev protests and now divided over political reform, criticised the proposed constitutional changes as authoritarian.
''I voted against it because the draft constitution contains contradictions and strengthens the authoritarian rule of one person,'' said Emil Aliyev, an opposition politician.
Preliminary results were due on Monday, election officials said.
The changes require a simple majority to be approved.
IRREGULARITIES Local non-governmental groups Interbilim and Coalition For Democracy and Civil Society said they had witnessed cases of ballot stuffing, inflated turnout figures and group voting.
''Suitable numbers will be simply invented in the final documents,'' Asiya Sasykbayeva, head of Interbilim, told 24.kg news agency.
The Central Election Commission shrugged off the accusations, saying a high turnout was due to people's growing awareness.
''People were active today because they want progress,'' said Zhyldyz Zholdosheva, a Commission member. ''For some reason when we have a high turnout people start talking about vote rigging.'' The amendments also raise the number of deputies and change the election process from a single-constituency system to a proportional all-party list, which should help the newly formed pro-presidential Ak Zhol party gain footing in the chamber.
Asked when a snap poll might take place, Bakiyev said: ''You will hear about it soon. Everything will be as it should be.'' Many people in Kyrgyzstan said they were ready to give Bakiyev a stronger hand for the sake of stability. ''I am ready for any kind of development. I just hope it'll get better,'' said Burul, a 72-year-old Bishkek resident.
Memories were still fresh in Kyrgyzstan of the chaos in 2005 when a mob ransacked the presidential palace and forced Akayev, in power since Soviet times, to flee to Russia in what critics said was a coup rather than a peaceful revolt.
But many were sceptical. ''No one cares about people in this country,'' said Svetlana, a 36-year-old teacher. ''It's lawlessness that rules it.'' REUTERS GL KN2342