Belarussian elections badly flawed, observers warn

'Substantial improvement required' after opposition fails to win any seats in parliamentary contest at the weekend

Luke Harding in Moscow,

Western observers today said parliamentary elections in Belarus over the weekend were seriously flawed after the opposition failed to win a single seat.

In a damning assessment, election observers said Sunday's poll to elect a new lower house of parliament had fallen well short of international democratic standards, despite a few "minor improvements".

Their withering verdict came after Belarus's president, Alexander Lukashenko, promised the poll would be free and fair, saying he hoped it would lead to improved ties with the west, especially the European Union.

There now seems little prospect that the EU will review sanctions against Belarus, which were imposed in 2006 after the EU and US said Lukashenko had rigged his re-election.

This afternoon the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Europe's main monitoring body, said the vote count had been plagued by problems of cheating.

"The count was assessed as bad or very bad in 48% of polling stations visited. Where access was possible, several cases of deliberate falsification of results were observed," the OSCE said.

Access to polling stations had been prevented in 35% of cases, it added, with promises to ensure transparency "not implemented".

"Substantial improvements are required if Belarus is to conduct a genuinely democratic election," Anne-Marie Lizin, a senior OSCE monitor, said.

The former Soviet republic's election commission this morning confirmed that the opposition had failed to win a single seat in the new house of representatives, with pro-government candidates sweeping the board.

Opposition leaders claimed the poll had been rigged. They immediately called on the west not to recognise its validity.

"There was no election in Belarus. It was an electoral farce," Anatoly Lebdko, leader of the opposition United Civil party, told the Associated Press. He added: "We call on the EU and US not to recognise the results of this election."

The democratic opposition failed to win any of the 110 parliamentary seats up for grabs, despite fielding 70 candidates.

On Sunday, Lukasenko insisted the elections would be more transparent than previous polls, and would usher in a new era of improved relations with the west.

"If the election goes smoothly, the west will recognise Belarus," he said. Referring to the US secretary of state, Condeleeza Rice, who in 2005 branded him Europe's last dictator, he added: "Dictator, last dictator: fine. Let it be so."

Today, Belarus's central election commission head, Lidia Yermoshina, said the poll had been fair. Explaining Lukashenko's landslide victory, she said: "The voter is afraid of losing what he has."

As soon as polls closed last night, however, about 500 opposition supporters turned out on the central square of the capital, Minsk, to protest against the vote. Many waved 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 of 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.

The EU has denounced previous elections in Belarus as illegitimate. In 2006 the US and EU imposed travel bans on Lukashenko and 40 of his senior officials, after accusing him of fraudulently arranging his re-election.

Recently, however, the west has shown interest in improving ties with Belarus. This has come as relations with Moscow have nose-dived following last month's war in Georgia and amid a row over Russia's claim to "privileged interest" in former Soviet states.

British officials say they are watching yesterday's poll closely. The EU is now prepared to review current sanctions against Minsk if there are "demonstrable" improvements in the regime's democratic and human rights record, they suggest.

Last night, however, opposition spokesmen in Belarus said the poll had already been rigged. The government had used "administrative resources" to force students and others to take part in early voting and opposition monitors had been banned from polling stations, they said.

"Again there are no democratic elections in Belarus. The house of representatives can't be considered democratic since members will be nominated by Lukashenko's finger," Vintsuk Vechorka, the co-chairman of Belarus' main opposition group, the United Democratic Forces, said.

He told the Guardian: "Lukashenko doesn't want to improve elections. He wants to improve his image in the eyes of the west. He's trying to survive between Putin's KGB Russia and the west. He wants better relations with the west so he can trade with Putin."



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