Poll results leave Belarus opposition in cold

by Ursula Hyzy

MINSK, (AFP) - Belarus opposition parties on Monday were left with no seats in parliament with most results declared as key elections cast doubt on the ex-Soviet state's bid for reconciliation with the West.

The Central Elections Commission said results for 99 of the 110 seats showed no gains for opponents of pro-Russian President Alexander Lukashenko, dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by Washington.

"The 99 elected candidates support the current authorities," commission head Lidia Yermoshina said Sunday. "There is no opponent among them." Full results were due at 0700 GMT Monday, she said.

Hundreds gathered Sunday in the centre of the capital Minsk to condemn the polls as a "farce" and call for the ouster of Lukashenko who they criticized for keeping the country deep in Moscow's orbit.

A sweep by pro-government parties would likely be read as a snub in Washington and Brussels, which have offered better ties with the former Soviet republic if the elections show significant improvements on earlier polls.

Lukashenko, who has ruled this economically backward former Soviet republic wedged between Russia and the European Union for 14 years, on Sunday hit out at opposition groups for taking "outside" funding.

"A real, constructive opposition is always needed... but not an opposition fed and financed 100 percent from outside," he told journalists.

The West has offered to ease sanctions, give economic aid and lift a travel ban on Belarussian leaders if Sunday's poll shows signs of progress in a country which is also a key transit route for Russian gas exports.

Young protesters gathered in central Minsk after polls closed, holding banners declaring "No to Farce," "Dictatorship Should Go to the Dustbin of History," and "No to Russian Military Bases."

They also waved flags of the European Union and orange ones mirroring those used in the pro-Western Orange Revolution in neighbouring Ukraine in 2004.

Only a few uniformed police could be seen surrounding the opposition rally, in stark contrast to previous post-election protests in Belarus

Earlier, a coalition of anti-Lukashenko groups criticised the election as undemocratic.

"It is clear these elections cannot be recognised as honest and fair under any criteria. We do not recognise the results," Anatoly Lebedko, the leader of the opposition United Citizen Party, told AFP.

The voter turnout was 75.3 percent, according to the latest figures from the election commission. That included more than a quarter of the electorate who cast ballots from Tuesday through Saturday.

The opposition has criticised the early voting system as giving authorities an easy way to commit fraud, since it was not subject to complete independent monitoring.

Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders complained that Lukashenko's critics were ignored in state-controlled media during campaigning -- a view shared by the demonstrators in Minsk's October Square.

Thousands had camped out in the same location in March 2006 to protest the results of a presidential vote widely seen as rigged.

Of the 263 candidates fighting for the 110 seats in the lower house of parliament, only 70 are from the United Democratic Forces, a coalition of opposition parties, while the rest are Lukashenko loyalists.

In the country's last parliamentary elections in 2004, no opposition candidates won a place in the lower house.

Election monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were to give their appraisal of the poll later Monday.

Final results were expected to be confirmed on Friday.



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