The election is a race between Prime Minister Almazbek Atambeyev, a moderate who is reassuring to the West, and two more nationalist candidates who have vowed mass protests if the polls after not fair.
The vote is a key test for the ex-Soviet nation of 5.3 million people neighbouring China after the unrest of 2010. In its 20 years of independence, Kyrgyzstan has yet to see a peaceful transition of presidential power.
A steady stream of voters, many wearing the traditional rimmed kolpak hat, cast their ballots in Bishkek, and early signs were of a strong turnout in the election with 9.67 percent casting their ballots by 0600 GMT, the central election commission said.
“I am confident that the people of Kyrgyzstan today will vote calmly and quietly, without any negative displays, for their nation’s future,” outgoing President Roza Otunbayeva – who is not standing – said as she cast her vote.
Otunbayeva took power in 2010 after an uprising ousted the regime of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, blamed for rampant corruption and cronyism. She set about creating the only parliamentary democracy in Central Asia.
The April 2010 uprising was the second revolution of Kyrgyzstan’s independence after the 2005 Tulip Revolution that ousted post-Soviet leader Askar Akayev and installed Bakiyev in his place.
But Otunbayeva was immediately faced with the worst crisis in Kyrgyzstan’s post-Soviet history when some 470 people were killed in violence in the south between the majority Kyrgyz and minority Uzbek community.
“I know that the people of Kyrgyzstan value peace. We stood at the abyss a year ago and we understand the value of unity,” said Otunbayeva, a close ally of Atambeyev.
Casting his vote, Atambayev said Kyrgyzstan had rejected the model of authoritarian presidential leadership that marks every other ex-Soviet Central Asian state and needed a “free, democratic country”.
OBSERVING THE POLLS
Doug Wake, first deputy director at OSCE’s Office for Democratic Insitutions and Human Rights which is observing the election, said it was clear there was “great interest” from voters in the “historically important polls”.
He praised the choice available to voters but said imperfect voter lists were a negative factor. Even Otunbayeva’s own son, Atay Sadybakasov, said he had been told he was not on the voter lists at his polling station.
The violence-hit south is only just recovering and its precarious calm could be threatened by a victory from the main Kyrgyz nationalist candidates Kachimbek Tashiyev of the Ata Zhurt party and the former speaker of parliament, Adakhan Madumarov.
Tashiyev, a former boxer, draws the bulk of his support from the divided south, and he and Madumarov have both warned of mass protests if the elections are judged to be fraudulent.
Madumarov told AFP earlier this week that in the case of fraud he would organise protest rallies. Tashiyev told reporters on Friday that “millions” would rise up if the elections were seen to be unfair.
Some polls – not always reliable in Kyrgyzstan – have shown that Atambayev has a chance of winning in the first round, while if he fails to garner more than 50 percent of the vote he would face a second-round run-off.
“I voted for Atambayev as we hope that when he becomes president Kyrgyzstan will rise up and have a better future,” said Lyudmila Perunova, 70, a pensioner.
Car worker Kerim Omarov said: “I’m voting for Tashiyev. He’s a real man and keeps his word.”
But Madumarov is seen as the stronger candidate of the two nationalists and analysts say he has shown his charisma well in televised debates, in contrast to Atambayev’s greyer demeanour.
“If Atambayev wins enough votes in the first round then victory is his. But if not, then Madumarov could overtake him in a second round,” political analyst Uran Chekirbayev told AFP.
A victory by one of the nationalists could affect the West’s relations with Kyrgyzstan, the only country in the world that hosts both US and Russian military bases, and is crucial hub for coalition operations in Afghanistan.
Polling stations opened at 08:00 am and will close at 7:00 pm (1300 GMT), with provisional results expected overnight Sunday to Monday.