Kyrgyzstan is set to hold a presidential election after months of political upheaval forced an unpopular president from power last year.
The vote on Sunday will be unusually free and democratic by Central Asian standards, but fears are mounting that it could fuel ethnic tensions and regional divide.
It follows the April 2010 violent overthrow of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, and the ethnic violence that followed in which rampaging mobs killed hundreds of minority ethnic Uzbeks in the country’s south.
Tensions remain between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south of the country. The region that saw open conflict between the two groups last year is now a political battleground.
Almazbek Atambayev, the 55-year-old wealthy businessman who stepped down as prime minister in September to take part in the election campaign, is thought to be the front-runner overall.
He hopes his efforts to restore economic stability over the past year will aid his chances in the election.
“Atambayev is the front-runner in this campaign, but he needs the support of the large Uzbek minority in the south of the country,” Al Jazeera’s Robin Forestier-Walker, reporting from the south of the country, said.
“They in turn are expecting stability from any future president.”
Over the two decades since the country gained independence, elections have been purely formal exercises designed to lend a threadbare veil of legitimacy to the ruling elite.
Bakiyev and his predecessor, mathematician Askar Akayev, only left office after being literally chased out of it by angry mobs.
After last year’s upheaval, the country’s interim leaders reformed the constitution. Kyrgyzstan now has the first parliamentary democracy in Central Asia.
Roza Otunbayeva, who has been running the country as interim president since 2010, will step down to make way for the election winner.
None of the three top contenders is likely to garner more than 50 per cent of votes in the election, which will set the stage for a runoff between the two top candidates.