Lewes's Bernheisel observes election in Belarus

Achieving democracy is slow going

By Henry J. Evans Jr.

A presidential election in Belarus last month marked the country's effort to move a former Eastern Bloc communist state closer to a more democratic form of government.

But Lewes resident Dave Bernheisel, who served as a polling station observer, said it looks as though it might take some time before the election process in Belarus bears any resemblance to that of Western-style democracies.

"Everything I observed directly at polling stations looked very good, very professional. There wasn't any obvious stuffing of ballot boxes or intimidation of voters," he said of the Dec. 19 election.

Belarus' four-term incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko was re-elected, but observers said it was a victory tainted by election improprieties. The Associated Press reports election results have been condemned by international observers.

Eastern Bloc describes former communist states of Eastern Europe, including the former Yugoslavia and Albania.

Bernheisel and other Americans observed the election along with dozens of observers from Spain, Germany, Italy, Sweden, United Kingdom and others working on behalf of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

To observe, the OSCE has to be invited by the country holding elections. Bernheisel has observed elections on behalf of the group in Kosovo, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Albania, Georgia, Tajikistan and now Belarus.

He said as a short-term observer, he's in a country for only about a week. Long-term observers are in a country for weeks ramping up to Election Day.

The outcome of each democratic presidential election in Belarus has resulted in the same winner - Lukashenko - who has held office since 1994.

Bernheisel said Eastern Bloc countries invite observers in an effort to align more closely with European democracies and especially with the West.

But judging from what OSCE observers saw, Belarus is not likely to quickly become more democratic.

"While the overall voting process was assessed as good, the process deteriorated significantly during the vote count, undermining the steps taken to improve the election.

"Observers assessed the vote count as bad and very bad in almost half of all observed polling stations.

"The count was largely conducted in a nontransparent manner, generally in silence, which undermined its credibility," an OSCE preliminary report concluded.

Democracies: Old and new

Bernheisel said presidential elections in Belarus resemble those of Chicago's political machine under control of 1960s-era Mayor Richard J. Daley.

It's interesting to compare old democracies with newly formed democratic governments, especially in regard to how well elections do or do not work.

"Under Daley it was vote early, vote often. Dead people voted, and the same person voted several times," Bernheisel said.

He said in Belarus, which international political analysts say Lukashenko runs like a dictator, anyone who was out of the country or deceased on Election Day could still vote for Lukashenko.

"They signed the voter list just like they do here, but it was cleverly done.

"One was signed with a blue pen, another with a black pen. One was signed left-handed and another right-handed," he said.

Bernheisel said Lukashenko did not use any state-sponsored television time to campaign. "He turned all his official duties into campaigning," he said.

Bernheisel said there were 10 candidates on the ballot and one box for none of the above. "At one polling station I observed, Lukashenko got 85 percent of the vote and the second biggest vote-getter was none of the above," he said.

Even without fraudulent polling, Bernheisel said Lukashenko would have won with up to 70 percent of the vote. "It would be a landslide by anybody who wins by that much here," he said.

Bernheisel said in earlier presidential elections, Lukashenko would win with 98 percent of the vote and anyone who ran against him would sometimes disappear.

The AP reports police rounded up protesters near the prison where most of Lukashenko's challengers were being held.

His nearest challenger, Andrei Sannikov, won 2.4 percent, and was beaten and jailed after the vote along with six other presidential hopefuls and hundreds of protesters.

Ties with Russia loosen

Bernheisel said after the Soviet Union broke up, Belarus continued to receive financial support from Russia, and Lukashenko espoused the view that all of the world's problems originated with the West.

"After the breakup, different republics went different ways. They wanted to forget that part of their past. But Belarus, with Lukashenko in control, stayed tightly wrapped with Russia," Bernheisel said.

He said Russia recently severed political and economic ties with Belarus, and the Russian government has made statements against Lukashenko.

"To Lukashenko, his main thing is to survive. "His position is, if I don't have friends there, I'll look other places. "So he looks to the West and cozies up to the European Union," Bernheisel said.

He said although he's confident election ballots were accurately counted, "I'm not confident there were the right number of ballots in the box." Because election observers move from one polling place to another, there's plenty of time to make it appear as though the election was being properly run.

After all votes were counted, Bernheisel said, everyone appeared to be happy with the results.


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