Lukashenko re-elected, Belarus opposition claims fraud

A Belarus man stands in front of an information poster showing portraits of presidential candidates near a polling station outside Minsk, 19 March 2006. EPA/ANATOLY MALTSEV

Minsk - Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko won a third term in office on Sunday as the opposition kicked off an anti- government protest.

The presidential election pitted incumbent Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss, against Aleksandr Milinkevich, a physics professor.

A state-run exit poll showed Lukashenko winning by an 82.3 per cent landslide, and Milinkevich receiving only 4.6 per cent. More than 10 per cent of ballots cast were for 'none of the above.'

Turnout was heavy with more than 80 per cent of registered voters expected to have cast ballots by the close of polls, said Lidia Eremoshina, Central Election Committee chairwoman.

Police presence was high throughout the country, with more than 50,000 law enforcers on emergency duty until the end of the month, according to a Lukashenko order.

A peaceful anti-government demonstration in Minsk's central Oktober Square began at 8 p.m. shortly after polls closed. Though Lukashenko had banned the march police standing behind barricades in the area made no early move to interfere with the estimated 8,000 demonstrators, beyond requesting they not obstruct traffic.

Police presence in the square itself was light and both law enforcers and demonstrators were making an obvious effort to avoid conflict.

Marchers were displaying banned red-and-white Belarusian flags. Flags from Georgia and Ukraine, the sites of the Rose and Orange Revolutions, were also visible.

Speakers led the crowd in anti-Lukashenko chants. When Lukashenko's probable official victory was made public via an outdoor television screen on the square, protestors greeted the announcement with 'Shame!'

Many motorists driving by the demonstration sounded their horns to signal their support to the protestors.

Tensions were high throughout the day, with Lukashenko threatening immediate police attack against law breakers, and the opposition issuing a statement warning of government plants within demonstrations planning to touch off violence.

Columns of troops and police reinforcements were reported in Minsk's suburbs in the hours prior to the vote.

Security troops were stationed aboard most trains en route to the capital Minsk on Sunday, but were not interfering with passengers, opposition organisers said.

Practically no violations of voting law, or violence, were reported during the day's polling.

Even before the polls closed, Milinkevich had accused Lukashenko's government of taking widespread advantage of early ballots to conceal massive vote fraud in his favour.

'Ballots (marked for me) were replaced with ballots marked for Lukashenko,' Milinkevich charged. More than 20 per cent of Belarusian voters cast early ballots, Eremoshina said.

More than 1,500 vote monitors were on hand for the polling, including a team of more than 550 observers from the Organization of Security and Cooperation.

Observers from Russia, a close Lukashenko ally, on Sunday described the election as fairly-run.

'The situation (in Belarus) has not changed for the better,' said Gerdt Arens, head of the OSCE mission to Belarus. The OSCE would issue a formal evaluation of the election on Monday, he said.

Lukashenko oversaw a series of KGB-style crackdowns against potential opponents in the run-up to the election, the latest taking place the night before voting began.

Secret police officers in the early morning hours raided the Minsk apartment of Aleksei Mikhalevich, a top member of the anti-Lukashenko Belarusian People's Front (BPF).

Law enforcers over the night also arrested 'more than a dozen' BPF-linked student activists, a BPF official said. The group is one of the few organizations willing to demonstrate against the authoritarian Belarusian president.

Close to one hundred senior opposition officials were behind bars or otherwise in police detention by Sunday, according to an opposition statement.

Lukashenko has dismissed Western threats of sanctions in the event that he wins the election unfairly. His foreign ministry on Saturday summoned the ambassadors of Germany and Latvia to receive an official note complaining of EU 'interference' in the Belarusian election process.