Monitors say Belarus poll flawed

Belarussian parliamentary polls were below Western standards and included falsified ballots, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has said.

The OSCE comments came on Monday after the results showed the opposition failed to win a single seat in parliament in voting a day earlier.

"Parliamentary elections in Belarus fell short of OSCE commitments, in spite of minor improvements," the European elections watchdog said in a statement.

Monitors were prevented from seeing the count in 35 per cent of cases and when they were present "several cases of deliberate falsification of results were observed", the statement said.

"The count was assessed as 'bad' or 'very bad' in 48 per cent of polling stations visited."

"Not a single opposition candidate was elected, at least not among those represented by the parties," Lidia Yermoshina, the head of the Central Elections Commission, said on Monday.

'Widespread fraud'

Just 78 opposition candidates were standing for the 110 seats in parliament.

After polling stations closed on Sunday, about 1,000 opposition activists marched through October Square in the capital, Minsk, claiming there had been widespread electoral fraud.

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 and the old red-white-red Belarus flag thrown out by Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarussian president, in 1996.

Maya Stachevskaya, one of the protesters, said: "Europe should not recognise these elections. Lukashenko does not organise free elections, he just names winners."

'Cosmetic changes'

Alexander Milinkevich, an opposition leader, told the rally that the vote had not been fair or democratic.

"We still have no democratic polls," he said.

"One can speak about some cosmetic changes, but these elections cannot be described as matching OSCE principles."

A senior Western election observer in Belarus said on Sunday that authorities had made "real efforts" to increase fairness, citing the increased number of opposition candidates and the greater time they have been given on television.

But Sergei Kalyakin, the leader of the opposition Communist Party, criticised the process of advance voting, which began on September 23, saying it gave the government an opportunity to cheat because ballot boxes were not monitored as closely as on election day.

More than 25 per cent of the electorate cast their ballots between Tuesday and Saturday, the election commission said. The total turnout after Sunday's voting was about 75 per cent.

No election in the former Soviet nation has been endorsed by Western organisation since the mid-1990s, but the United States and European Union have signalled that relations could be improved if there was tangible democratic progress.

Lukashenko, once referred to by Washington as "Europe's last dictator", has freed political prisoners and eased restrictions on the opposition, which was shut out of the previous parliament.

"If the election goes smoothly, the West will recognise Belarus," Lukashenko, who is currently banned from travelling to the US and EU countries over accusations he rigged his re-election in 2006, said after voting on Sunday.

Alexander Kozulin, a leading opposition member who was among prisoners released last month, said that the result showed that Lukashenko had "closed the door that the West was trying to open for him".



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