Belarusian Opposition Shut Out Of Parliament

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka talks to media after voting in Minsk

MINSK/PRAGUE (RFE/RL) -- Opposition candidates in Belarus failed to win a single seat in parliamentary elections that could figure heavily in the future course of relations between the West and Europe's most isolated country.

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka had hoped his country's September 28 balloting would open a new chapter in Belarusian relations with the West. The results, however, look like more of the same -- and could prove a setback for hopes in Minsk of using the vote to curry favor among Western governments.

Lidziya Yarmoshyna, the head of the country's Central Election Commission, announced that not a single member of the political opposition won a parliamentary post in the 110-seat chamber.

"I can only comment [on election] figures, and the figures show this," Yarmoshyna said. "As far as the question of why [opposition candidates] didn't win is concerned, the voters didn't back them. I would understand if the difference in the voting figures was close; one could discuss the issue. But if you look at the difference between opposition candidates and those who won the vote, the figures are not compatible at all."

Belarusian Party of Communists leader Syarhey Kalyakin was the highest finisher among the opposition candidates, but won just 15.6 percent of the vote in his district. Although winners have yet to be finalized in a handful of districts, it appears clear they will all go to pro-presidential candidates.

Such results would be unsurprising in a typical Belarusian election, which ordinarily have the appearance of tightly orchestrated events that leave little to chance.

But President Lukashenka, reeling from a series of rows with Moscow over mounting gas prices and seeking closer ties with the West, wanted it to seem different this time. The European Union, in turn, had indicated it could reward a clean election by easing sanctions.

So Lukashenka had taken steps to ensure the vote would resemble, at least outwardly, a legitimate political contest.

The 260-plus candidates' list included nearly 80 members of the political opposition, and the vote was conducted in full view of more than 500 international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

A critical moment will come when the OSCE gives its assessment on whether the vote was free or fair, expected this afternoon.

Members of the opposition were not waiting for the official tallies or the OSCE's judgment, and have called the vote a sham.

Some 800 activists marched in the capital, Minsk, late on election day to protest the ballot.

"Not a single person from the united democratic list made it into the Chamber of Representatives," opposition United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka told a news conference the day after the vote. "It was appointed solely and completely from those on Alyaksandr Lukashenka's list."

"Our position has been clear: We do not recognize this [election] campaign as fair or legitimate because only 0.05 percent of our people were included in [election] commissions counting the votes, and 99.95 percent of commission members are people politically or economically dependent on Lukashenka," Lyabedzka said.

Opposition members claim, in part, that advance voting allowed the government to cheat because it had not been as closely monitored as the actual vote.

Alyaksandr Kazulin, who ran against Lukashenka in the March 2006 presidential election, was recently given an early release from jail, where he was serving a 5 1/2-year sentence for his role in protests following the vote.

His daughter, Volha, ran for a parliamentary seat, but received just 8.6 percent of the vote. Kazulin said the opposition has "a lot of facts and evidence" proving voter fraud, but encouraged the West to continue a dialogue with Minsk.

"Of course [the West] should not shut doors to the Belarusian political regime. It's necessary to work with them, teach them how things should be done in the civilized world and civilized community," Kazulin said. "But I think it has to be clear that dialogue means cooperation, and cooperation suggests steps toward each other. That's why if the West takes a step toward the Belarusian political regime then this regime would have to made the necessary corresponding steps -- not declarations, not statements, but concrete actions and real changes for the democratization of Belarusian society."

The new Chamber of Representatives is expected to hold its first session on October 25.



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