U.K. Envoy Wants Belarus Opposition At Vote Count

Belarusian police break up an opposition demonstration in Minsk on September 16.

MINSK (Reuters) -- A Western diplomat has urged Belarus to allow more opposition figures to witness the count in an election widely seen as a test of the former Soviet republic's pledge to abide by democratic norms.

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, accused in the West of human rights abuses, has invited hundreds of observers to the September 28 parliamentary poll and promised a free and fair contest.

The opposition, shut out of parliament in a 2004 election, has had dozens of candidates registered. But its leaders want more representatives on commissions overseeing the vote count.

British ambassador Nigel Gould-Davies said a properly staged election could open the door to improved relations with the European Union.

"If the elections proceed in a worthy fashion, there is a real opportunity for a breakthrough in relations between the European Union and Belarus," he told a news conference. "All measures should be taken to ensure a proper vote count. It would be reasonable to re-examine the makeup of commissions [at polling stations] to include representatives of all candidates and political forces."

Opposition Withdrawal?

Some opposition figures have suggested they may pull out of the race if they do not gain better access to the commissions.

A "council" grouping opposition parties meets on September 21 to decide on participation. Many analysts say the opposition, often beset by internal rows, could split on the issue.

Gould-Davies said a Western endorsement of the vote as democratic would depend "not on the outcome but rather on the process. This time, Belarus can hope for a much more positive assessment of the election than in the past."

No election held in Belarus since the mid-1990s has been deemed free or fair. Lukashenka has been accused of routinely rigging polls, including his own re-election in 2006.

Lackluster Campaign

The president, barred from the United States and European Union, has sought improved ties with the West since quarrelling with traditional ally Russia last year over energy prices.

Belarussian courts have in recent months freed all detainees deemed in the West to be political prisoners. But riot police on September 16 dispersed an unauthorized protest by several dozen opposition activists in Minsk's main square.

The number of opposition candidates allowed to run this time far exceeds those of previous polls, but campaigning has so far been dull or nonexistent.

There are virtually no posters or billboards in Minsk streets and campaign pitches are generally confined to five-minute spots provided by law on state television and radio.



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