Lukashenko Promises a Fair Election

MINSK - Belarussians voted for a new parliament on Sunday, and President Alexander Lukashenko expressed confidence that the election would proceed smoothly and lead to improved relations with the West.

Lukashenko, accused of flouting fundamental rights during 14 years in power, has freed political prisoners and eased curbs on the opposition, shut out of the outgoing 110-member parliament. His opponents this time have been allowed to put forward some 70 candidates and hope to win up to 30 seats.

"If the election goes smoothly, the West will recognize Belarus," a beaming Lukashenko said after voting in Minsk.

Lukashenko remains banned from traveling to the United States and European Union on grounds that he blatantly rigged his 2006 re-election. The EU has said it may consider easing or lifting its sanctions if the election goes well.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has sent 477 observers, and their observations on whether the poll was free or fair may matter more than the actual outcome.

"Of course, the Central Election Commission and officials in polling stations are now nicer, they do not seek confrontation," Alexander Kozulin, an opposition leader freed from jail last month, told reporters after voting. "But this is all superficial, it does not change the basic problems."

Lukashenko says he wants the opposition to win some seats, if only to counter Western critics. But he remained contemptuous of its current leaders.

"We need : a constructive opposition," he said. "But the current opposition is short-lived. It will disappear because they represent only themselves and have lost their worth."

Voting started at 8 a.m. and lasted until 8 p.m. First unofficial results were expected in the early hours of Monday.



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