Kyrgyzstan held an historic referendum on Sunday to create Central Asia's first parliamentary democracy, with turn-out appearing high despite months of political turmoil and a wave of ethnic violence.
At least 283 people were killed this month -- and possibly hundreds more -- in violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic that hosts U.S. and Russian military air bases and shares a border with China.
Interim government leader Roza Otunbayeva arrived in a motorcade amid high security in the southern city of Osh, the epicentre of the violence. Smiling and appearing relaxed in a bright purple jacket, she cast her vote in a local university.
"Our country today is on the brink of great danger, but the results of this referendum will show that the country is united and that the people are one. It will stand strong on its own feet and move forward," Otunbayeva said after casting her vote.
The United States and Russia say they would support a strong government to prevent the turmoil spreading throughout ex-Soviet Central Asia, a strategic region bordering Afghanistan where all countries have until now been run by authoritarian presidents.
The referendum calls on voters to support changes to the constitution that would devolve power from the president to a prime minister, paving the way for parliamentary elections in October and diplomatic recognition for the interim government.
The central election commission said 43.14 percent of the national electorate had voted by 3:00 p.m. (0900 GMT), seven hours after polling booths opened across the country of 5.3 million people. There is no minimum turnout requirement.
Under the new charter, Otunbayeva -- the first woman to lead a Central Asian state -- would be interim president until the end of 2011. Parliamentary elections would be held every five years and the president limited to a single six-year term.
Otunbayeva, a former ambassador to the United States and Britain, took power after a revolt in April overthrew President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Though from the south, she has struggled to gain control of the region, Bakiyev's family stronghold.
The bloodshed also deepened divisions between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks who have a roughly equal share of the population in the south. Many ethnic Uzbeks say they were targeted in the violence and are loath to support what they see as a Kyrgyz initiative.
Voters turn out despite violence
Many Uzbeks, however, turned out to vote, some setting off from homes that were burned out in the violence. Friends who had not seen each other since the bloodshed began on June 10 embraced in polling-station queues in neighborhoods of Osh.
Election officials accompanied by armed guards carried transparent ballot boxes to locals who were too afraid to visit the polling stations, ticking off names as the boxes filled up.
"We have to live through this turbulent period, but when we get a real government it will all be stable again," said Andrei Abdullayev, an ethnic Uzbek veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
He was one of 600 ethnic Uzbek vigilantes guarding a neighborhood of Osh where a disused vodka distillery served as a polling station. Laundry lines hung between the walls of burned-out homes where people live without the shelter of a roof.
"We have nothing here: no gas, no electricity, no running water," said Farida Marasulayeva. She was among the tens of thousands of refugees who returned home after days sleeping rough or in camps either side of the border with Uzbekistan.
"Maybe someone will help us. We just want to live in peace," she said after voting, cradling her year-old son in her arms.
Several women said they could still hear gunfire each night.
The 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declined to send observers to Osh and Jalalabad, another southern city hit by violence, due to security concerns.
Speaking in the capital Bishkek, Janez Lenarcic, head of the OSCE's election monitoring arm, said the Organization had concerns about the referendum but was hoping for a high turnout.
"There are inconsistencies and shortcomings. Our understanding is that the turnout requirement has been dropped for this referendum. Nevertheless I think the higher the turnout the higher the legitimacy of the whole process," he said.
"The referendum is legitimate to the extent that Kyrgyz voters legitimize it."
Constitutional change is widely expected to find support in the capital Bishkek, where early voters were met by the national anthem blaring from loudspeakers inside polling stations.
Olga Shushpanova, 84, was among the first to cast her ballot: "A state cannot exist without fundamental law, so we have to put an end to this chaos."