Protesters slam Belarus vote 'farce'

Hundreds protested in Belarus after parliamentary elections expected to determine whether President Alexander Lukashenko`s regime warms to the West or moves deeper into Russia`s orbit.

Lukashenko, dubbed "Europe`s last dictator" by Washington, courted the West in the lead-up to the polls in an apparent bid to thaw relations with the United States and European Union.

Washington and Brussels have offered better ties with the former Soviet republic if they approve of the election, but opposition demonstrators slammed the vote as a farce, and so far, no opposition candidates had been elected.

The Central Elections Commission said with votes counted in 99 of the 110 constituencies, no opposition candidates were elected.

"In 99 constituencies, winners garnered more than 50 percent of the votes (necessary to be elected). The 99 elected candidates support the current authorities," commission head Lidia Yermoshina told journalists.

"There is no opponent among them."

Preliminary complete results were to be announced on Monday at 10:00 am (0700 GMT).

In central Minsk after polls closed, young protesters held 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, the old red-white-red Belarus flag eliminated by Lukashenko in 1996, and orange ones mirroring those used in the pro-Western Orange Revolution in neighbouring Ukraine in 2004.

One of the protesters, Maya Stachevskaya, declared: "Europe should not recognise these elections (as legitimate). Lukashenko does not organise free elections, he just names winners."

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.

After casting his ballot, Lukashenko 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.

Lukashenko, the iron-fisted ruler of the economically backward former Soviet republic for the past 14 years, has clamped down hard on protests in the past.

On Sunday, however, only a few uniformed police could be seen surrounding the opposition rally, in stark contrast to previous post-election protests in Belarus, which lies wedged between Russia and the 27-nation European Union.

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.

At a polling station in the capital, 82-year-old Nikolai Zelenkevich offered support for Lukashenko, saying: "We are accustomed to the Soviet regime, we are disciplined."

But another voter, 27-year-old Nikolai Lugovtsov, said "normal people cannot vote for a candidate who was placed there by Lukashenko" adding: "This is our country, the last dictatorship of Europe."

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 should be confirmed on Friday.



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