Opposition Leaders Call Belarus Elections Bogus

Opposition says vote rigged after failing to win any seats in parliament

By YURAS KARMANAU Associated Press Writer

Opposition leaders called on the West not to recognize the results of Belarus parliamentary elections after opponents of authoritiarian President Alexander Lukashenko failed to win any seats.

The opposition alleged the vote was rigged and said the results cast doubt on Lukashenko's commitment to democratic reform in the former Soviet republic, after his promises that Sunday's election would be free and fair.

"There was no election in Belarus," said Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the opposition United Civil Party. "It was an electoral farce for the West. We call on the EU and U.S. not to recognize the results of the election."

A total of 263 candidates, including 70 from the opposition, were competing for the 110 parliamentary seats. With results from 99 of the 110 districts, the major opposition candidates were shut out, the elections commission said. None of the opposition candidates running in the remaining 11 districts are well known.

"The voter is afraid of losing what he has," Central Election Commission head Lidia Yermoshina said.

In national elections four years ago the opposition was not even allowed to run. But Lukashenko welcomed more than 400 election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe this time around to prove he is embracing democratic reforms.

"It will be very difficult for the observers not to recognize these elections," Lukashenko said after casting his ballot.

Opposition members complained an early voting system meant observers would have trouble assessing the elections. Early voting began Tuesday, and more than 25 percent of about 7 million eligible voters had cast ballots before Sunday, the Central Election Commission said.

Final turnout was 75 percent, it said.

"You can't call it a real election when students, soldiers and workers are forced to vote early and when nobody is guarding the ballot boxes for five nights," Lebedko said.

Opposition leaders also were protesting their exclusion from the vote counting.

Lukashenko - an open admirer of the Soviet Union who has run Belarus with a heavy hand since 1994 - has made some efforts to appease critics from abroad. They included freeing several opposition figures considered political prisoners by the West.

The attempt to improve relations with the West apparently reflects concerns about Belarus' over-reliance on neighboring Russia, which has begun scaling back the preferential energy deals that have helped keep the Belarusian economy afloat.

The West has been more receptive to Lukashenko's overtures after Russia invaded Georgia, another small former Soviet republic on its border.

The United States and the European Union said they would watch the election carefully and promised to consider lifting sanctions imposed on Belarus if Lukashenko shows he is serious about allowing more political competition.

"European public opinion has placed high hopes in this election and is expecting positive results," said Ann-Marie Lizin, coordinator of the OSCE observers. The observers will give their assessment of the election Monday.

As soon as the polls closed, about 500 opposition supporters turned out on the central square of the capital to protest the vote. Many carried European Union flags.

"We are tired of living in fear. We are tired of repression," said Natalya Kurilovich, 34. "I'm tired of Lukashenko stealing votes. I want a European future for my children."

A couple hundred young protesters marched to the headquarters of the KGB, the country's secret police, and chanted "shame" outside the building before moving on and eventually returning to the main square.

"Young people want to live in Europe and are ready to fight for this," said Artur Finkevich, one of the organizers.

Opposition protests in the past have often been crushed by police in scenes that have helped earn Belarus a reputation as Europe's last dictatorship. But on Sunday, authorities appeared to be trying to avoid the spectacle of protesters being beaten or arrested.



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