Loyalists Lead Vote in Belarus


MINSK, Belarus - Candidates loyal to Belarus's authoritarian president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, won an overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats on Sunday in an election under scrutiny for signs that he was easing control over the country.

Mr. Lukashenko had pledged that balloting would be free and fair, seeking to improve relations with the United States and the European Union, which have imposed stiff sanctions on Belarus in response to his rule.

Opposition leaders have said for weeks that the voting would be rigged.

After Mr. Lukashenko cast his ballot, he declared, "It will be very difficult for observers not to recognize these elections."

Still, preliminary results showed that supporters of the president had garnered at least 99 of the 110 seats in Parliament. Results were not available for the other 11 seats, but it seemed highly likely that the opposition would capture few, if any, of those.

No members of the opposition currently serve in Parliament.

Belarus, a former Soviet republic of 10 million people, has close diplomatic and ethnic ties with neighboring Russia, though frictions have arisen at times, and Mr. Lukashenko seems to have sought to play the Kremlin off the West in recent months to lessen his dependence on the Kremlin.

In response to heightened tensions between Russia and the West over the conflict in Georgia, the European Union has tried to reach out to Belarus to woo it from the Kremlin's orbit. European leaders made clear, though, that much would depend on how the election was conducted.

Mr. Lukashenko, who has held power since 1994, has cited his willingness to allow opposition candidates to vie for seats as an example of his openness. In addition, he released political prisoners last month, including the most well-known, Aleksandr V. Kazulin, who had been serving a lengthy sentence for leading protests.

On Sunday, opposition leaders described the election as a farce, saying that they were largely banned from appearing on the state-controlled television news and holding campaign rallies. They said they were certain that vote totals were fraudulent because they were not allowed to observe the counting.

A few hundred opposition supporters gathered in a central square to denounce Mr. Lukashenko and call for the West to do so as well.

Mr. Kazulin made a dramatic appearance, saying that the people of Belarus wanted better relations with the rest of Europe but could not attain them because of Mr. Lukashenko's harsh rule.

"We absolutely have a huge quantity of facts that show that this election was not democratic," Mr. Kazulin said. "And the main thing is that the citizens of Belarus did not see this campaign."

Mr. Lukashenko allowed observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor the election. In a report this month, they said the campaign was being conducted in "an extremely low-key manner," suggesting that the opposition had little, if any, ability to publicize its message.



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