Opposition fails in Belarus

Opposition candidates failed to win any seats with most results declared on Monday in a parliamentary election that Belarus's President Alexander Lukashenko hopes will promote better relations with the West.

Election officials said all 100 seats so far had gone to pro-government candidates, as hundreds of opposition supporters marched in Minsk to protest against the ballot and to urge the West not to endorse it. Only 10 seats remained to be decided.

Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observers are due to report whether they found the poll in Belarus, once described by Washington as Europe's last dictatorship, to be free and fair.

No election in the former Soviet republic, wedged between Russia and three EU members, has won a Western endorsement since the mid-1990s, but in the past two years Lukashenko has sought to improve ties amid rows with main ally Russia over gas prices.

Lukashenko, accused of flouting fundamental rights during 14 years in power, has freed political prisoners and eased curbs on an opposition that was shut out of the previous parliament.

"If the election goes smoothly, the West will recognise Belarus," Lukashenko, banned from travelling to the United States and European Union countries over accusations he rigged his 2006 re-election, said after voting on Sunday.

"Dictator? Last dictator? Fine, let it be so," he said, referring to the label applied by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2005.

The West, whose ties with Russia have deteriorated after Moscow's brief war with Georgia last month, has signalled to Lukashenko that rapprochement is possible. The EU has said it may consider easing or lifting sanctions if the poll goes well.

But no one from the list of 78 opposition candidates in the 100 seats announced so far by Electoral Commission was among the winners. Results of the other 10 seats, including nine where opposition candidates are standing, are due later on Monday.

The commission said average turnout was 75%.

Up to 800 opposition supporters gathered in Minsk's Oktyabrskaya square, scene of previous protests, to say the election was a sham. They carried white-and-red nationalist banners, EU flags and posters saying "No to unfair election".

Protesters later marched to the Electoral Commission offices, shouting "We believe, we can, we will win", and then back to the Oktyabrskaya square. Unusually for Belarus, virtually no police were present at the scene of protests.

"We still have no democratic polls," an opposition leader, Alexander Milinkevich, told the rally. "One can speak about some cosmetic changes, but these elections cannot be described as matching OSCE principles. I think the OSCE will say so."

On Sunday, the leader of the opposition Communist Party Sergei Kalyakin told reporters his election monitors had failed to record any major wrongdoings during the vote.

But he said advance voting, which began on September 23 and was encouraged and tightly controlled by authorities, gave the government an opportunity to cheat because ballot boxes were not monitored as closely as on election day.

Authorities have rejected such accusations.

"What we have so far seen monitoring the election is in full accordance with rules and procedures," the state-run Belta news agency quoted a senior OSCE observer, Anne-Marie Lizin, as saying. "We have a favourable impression."



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