Belarus opposition fails to win single seat in marred poll

by Ursula Hyzy

MINSK, Belarus (AFP) - Loyalists of autocratic Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko won every seat Monday in parliamentary polls that were widely condemned by the US government and Western observers.

Full results of Sunday's legislative elections indicated all 110 lower house seats in the former Soviet state would go to allies of Lukashenko, dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by the United States.

"Not a single opposition candidate was elected" to represent their party, said Central Elections Commission chief Lidia Yermoshina, who stated the vote was "in accordance with the law."

The polls were expected to determine whether Lukashenko's 14-year-old regime would move deeper into Russia's orbit or warm to the West, which had promised improved ties and other benefits if there was democratic progress.

In a preliminary verdict, Washington said the poll fell "well short of international standards."

"This is an initial take. We obviously want to work with the Belarussian government. And we'll be looking for ways to do that," US State Department deputy spokesman Robert Wood said.

Elections watchdog the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) also said the vote "fell short of OSCE commitments in spite of minor improvements."

The director of the OSCE mission in Belarus, Anne-Maris Lizin, said the door "should remain open" to Belarus in this "crucial time" for relations between the former Soviet state and the European Union.

The organisation, which deployed some 450 poll monitors, said they were denied access to more than a third of polling stations for the count and found "several cases of deliberate falsification of results" at other locations.

Opposition leader Anatoly Lebedko had earlier described the results of the vote as "unfair and illegitimate" in comments broadcast on Echo of Moscow radio station.

"In most electoral districts, no-one counted the votes," said Lebedko, the leader of the opposition United Citizen Party. "Huge vote dumping (of opposition ballots) was registered during preliminary voting," he said.

"This is a defeat for Europe, a defeat of European diplomacy, a defeat of the European politicians who already envisaged making deals here," he said later at a press conference.

Prior to the poll, Lukashenko made an apparent bid to thaw ties with the United States and European Union, which offered to ease sanctions, give economic aid and lift a travel ban on Belarussian leaders in return for progress.

The Russian government issued a statement on Monday saying its powerful prime minister, Vladimir Putin, would pay a visit to Belarus on Monday next week.

That and a sweep by pro-Lukashenko parties would likely be read as a snub in Washington and Brussels.

Lukashenko, who has ruled this economically backward former Soviet republic wedged between Russia and the European Union with an iron fist for 14 years, on Sunday hit out at opposition groups for taking "outside" funding.

The Belarussian president was "afraid to let even two or three people (from the opposition) into parliament," said former parliament speaker General Mecheslav Grib.

"It seems to me he started this game with the West on the recognition of the elections, and then he interrupted it and hit the West on the head with the chessboard," added Grib.

Hundreds of opposition activists gathered late Sunday in the capital Minsk to condemn the polls as a "farce" and urged international observers not to recognize the outcome.

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.

The official voter turnout was 75.3 percent, including more than a quarter of the electorate who cast ballots from Tuesday through Saturday, a system the opposition says is open to abuse.

Foreign observers complained Lukashenko's critics were ignored in state-run media during campaigning -- a view shared by the demonstrators in Minsk's October Square.

Thousands had camped out in the same location in March 2006 to protest the results of a presidential vote widely seen as rigged.

Of the 263 candidates fighting for the 110 seats, only 70 were from the United Democratic Forces, a coalition of opposition parties, while the rest back Lukashenko.

The results are due to be formally confirmed on Friday.



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