People vote at a polling station during the presidential election in the village of Kyzyl-Birdik
By Olga Dzyubenko
BISHKEK (Reuters) - A protege of outgoing pro-Russian leader Almazbek Atambayev looked set for a surprise outright victory in Kyrgyzstan's presidential election on Sunday, despite polls having predicted a close runoff between him and an opposition leader.
According to preliminary data published by the central election commission, former prime minister and Atambayev ally Sooronbai Jeenbekov had secured 54.22 percent of the vote based on a count from 97 percent of the polling stations.
His main opponent, oil tycoon Omurbek Babanov, trailed well behind with 33.47 percent, according to the same early data.
A close ally of Moscow and host to a Russian military base, Kyrgyzstan helps its former Soviet overlord project power across a region where China and the United States also vie for influence.
In contrast to other Central Asian states, which are mostly run by autocrats, Kyrgyzstan is a boisterous democracy that produces sometimes chaotic changes of leadership.
After its first two presidents were ousted by riots, the country restyled itself as a parliamentary republic where presidential powers are mostly limited to foreign policy and security matters.
But Atambayev strengthened executive powers last year.
Constitutionally barred from seeking a second six-year term, he backed Jeenbekov, 58, an experienced apparatchik who served as prime minister until August.
In Sunday's election, observers, citing pre-election polls, saw none of the candidates clearing the 50 percent threshold for outright victory, with Jeenbekov and Babanov then competing in a runoff.
Babanov's campaign office declined to comment on the preliminary results but said it would do so on Monday.
Babanov's next move will be closely watched because allegations of electoral fraud were among the main factors behind violent protests which toppled two Kyrgyz presidents in 2005 and 2010.
Atambayev - likely to remain a powerful figure if his preferred candidate Jeenbekov does win - warned on Sunday he would use any violence as an opportunity to "cleanse" the country.
Atambayev and Jeenbekov's Social Democratic party is the biggest in parliament and dominates the coalition cabinet.
But they faced stiff opposition from Babanov, 47, whose Respublika-Ata Zhurt (Fatherland) party has the second-biggest parliamentary faction and whose poll numbers had suggested he and Jeenbekov would compete in a tight runoff.
Babanov, also a former prime minister, has accused the government of abusing its powers to ensure Jeenbekov's victory after the authorities charged some of his campaign supporters with plotting a coup and planning to bribe voters.
Babanov has denied any wrongdoing and dismissed the charges against his supporters as dirty election tactics.
Atambayev and his cabinet have also accused Kazakhstan, a bigger and wealthier neighbour, of backing Babanov - which both Babanov and the Kazakh government deny.
"What they (the authorities) are doing is outrageous," Babanov told reporters on Sunday, adding some of his campaign staff and a reporter for a TV station owned by Babanov had been attacked by unidentified men on the day of the vote.
Atambayev on Sunday warned opponents against trying to stage violent protests after the vote.
"In fact, if there is unrest, it's going to be a good thing, I would like to cleanse (the country of) them all completely," he told reporters after casting his ballot.
Both Jeenbekov and Babanov have said they consider Russia - where hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz migrant labourers work - a strategic partner.
According to preliminary data, voter turnout was 55.93 percent.
(Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Richard Balmforth)