Belarus votes as opposition cries foul

MINSK (AFP) - Belarussians vote on Sunday in a parliamentary election that could determine whether the authoritarian former Soviet republic and longtime ally of Russia warms to the West.

But the opposition has already slammed the poll as undemocratic and plans a rally to protest what it fears will be widespread voting fraud by allies of autocratic Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko.

Voters, who will have 12 hours to cast ballots from 8:00 am (0500 GMT), are being asked to choose 110 deputies for the lower house of parliament, which currently has no members from the opposition.

Belarus, a landlocked nation of around 10 million people, lies between Russia and the European Union and is an important transit country for Russian gas exports.

Its all-powerful leader, Lukashenko, was once dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by Washington, but has been courting the West in the past few months amid wavering of loyalty to Russia.

The wily 54-year-old has voiced hopes the vote will be recognised by the United States and European Union, which are closely monitoring Belarus' democratic credentials.

In return for progress, the United States has suggested it could ease sanctions along with the 27-nation European bloc, which also flagged lifting travel bans for Belarussian leaders and offering Minsk economic aid.

The top Western election observer in Belarus said Friday that authorities had made "real efforts" to increase fairness, citing the increased number of opposition candidates and the greater time allotted them on television.

"The biggest change is that we are actually allowed to participate in the vote count," Anne-Marie Lizin, the international community's special coordinator in Belarus, told AFP.

But on the same day, the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said Luksahenko's critics were being ignored in state-controlled media, adding there had been "no improvement" from previous elections.

That is one of the complaints of the anti-Lukashenko groups which plan to stage the post-poll rally in Minsk's October Square, where thousands protested the results of a March 2006 presidential vote, setting up a tent town.

Of the 263 candidates running for office, 70 are from the United Democratic Forces, a coalition of opposition parties, while the rest are Lukashenko loyalists.

In 15 of the 110 districts, the president's allies are running unopposed.

The vote is to be monitored by almost 400 observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the continent's elections watchdog. The first results are expected on Monday.



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