Observers Say Election Fell Short of Democracy

Despite claims that Sunday's elections were free and fair, loyalists of Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko won every seat in parliament. On Monday, OSCE observers said the vote had fallen short of Western standards.

A day after Sunday's election, Belarus' Central Elections Commission announced that all 110 seats of the lower house were going to allies of President Alexander Lukashenko, whom the US has dubbed "Europe's last dictator." It wasn't long before international election observers delivered their verdict: The vote was flawed.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe said that, despite "minor improvements," the polls had fallen short of Western standards. In its preliminary report, the OSCE said that "voting was generally well conducted, but the process deteriorated considerably during the vote count."

The OSCE, which had deployed some 450 observers in Belarus for the elections, said that the count was "bad or very bad" at 48 percent of the polling stations its representatives had visited. Monitors had been prevented from observing the count in 35 percent of the cases and, where they had managed to gain access, they saw "several cases of deliberate falsification of results."

Election commission head Lidiya Yermoshina insisted that the vote was free and fair and "in accordance with the law," arguing that the opposition was simply not popular. "The opposition has gone out of fashion," Yermoshina said, adding that the voters were afraid to lose what they have.

Opposition figures disputed this. "We can't say the opposition has lost since, in fact, there was no election," Valentina Svyatskaya of the Belarusian Popular Front told the Associated Press. Although 70 candidates were allowed to run, opposition figures complained even before Sunday's election that the vote was bound to be a farce. In particular, they were critical of the fact that 25 percent of the electorate had been required to cast early ballots starting last Tuesday in a system that the opposition claimed was open to abuse. Meanwhile, election observers complained that critics of Lukashenko were ignored by the state-run media during the campaign.

Alexander Kozulin, a leading opposition figure who had been imprisoned by the regime until just last month, had pleaded with the West on Sunday not to "close the door" on Belarus despite the flawed election. However, once it became clear that not a single opposition figure had made it into parliament, Kozulin slammed Lukashenko for closing the door "himself that the West was trying to open for him."

On Sunday night, opposition supporters were already dismissing the regime's claims to be have held democratic elections. Around 500 people turned out on a central square in Minsk to protest, and many carried banners with slogans such as "No to farce," and "Dictatorship should go in the dustbin of history." Several hundred then made their way to the headquarters of the country's secret police, where they chanted "shame."

On Monday, Kozulin said that the way the election was conducted "spits in the face of the European community." Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, had been making moves to improve ties with the West, particularly since relations have cooled with Belarus' traditional ally, Russia, after a series of rows over gas prices. Sensing an opportunity, the EU and Washington had indicated that sanctions would be eased if democracy was seen to be gaining ground.

At a press conference on Monday, Anatoly Lebedko, a veteran opposition figure, said that "there are some in the West who thought there might be a deal with Lukashenko. Our position was clear from the very beginning. We do not recognize this campaign as fair or legitimate : They simply appointed 110 deputies."



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