Belarusians yesterday voted in parliamentary polls with critics already condemning the election as fraudulent despite strongman President Alexander Lukashenko’s efforts to reach out to the West.
Lukashenko -- who has been dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” -- has ruled the ex-Soviet nation since 1994 and overseen a series of elections that international observers have deemed unfair.
Voters were yesterday electing the 110 MPs of the House of Representatives, the lower chamber in what the opposition calls a rubber-stamp parliament.
Those critical of Lukashenko faced little choice at the ballot box, with the main opposition leaders and the only two current opposition MPs barred from standing.
“The elections have been reduced to a ritual, just like in the USSR,” Ales Bialiatski, head of rights group Vyasna, said in a statement.
Alaksej Janukevich, deputy head of the Belarus National Front opposition party, told AFP he believed the authorities had chosen “the familiar scenario of falsifications”.
According to official figures, more than 35 percent of the 6.8 million electorate had voted ahead of polling day through absentee ballots. A further two percent voted in the first hour after polls opened at 8am.
Belarusian election monitoring campaign Right to Choose, organised by opposition parties, reported 485 violations during preliminary voting, mostly electoral officials inflating the number of voters at polling stations as compared to observers’ counts.
This comes despite renewed efforts by Lukashenko to reach out to Western nations, which have been critical of his record on human rights and democracy.
Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss, made a rare visit to western Europe this month, meeting with Austrian leaders in Vienna.
Defending his record, the 65-year-old said he wanted the European Union to be “an important political and business partner” for his country.
He also hosted then White House national security advisor John Bolton for rare talks in Minsk in late August, saying a “new chapter” was opening in ties with Washington.
As he faces a presidential election himself next year, Lukashenko is looking to the West to take further steps after already lifting some sanctions imposed after a 2011 crackdown on protests.
He is also seeking a counterweight in relations with giant neighbour Russia, which is keen to ensure Belarus remains firmly in its sphere of influence.
EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said the bloc was watching yesterday’s election closely.
“Our standards when it comes to elections are very high,” she told reporters in Brussels. “We expect nothing else when it comes to Belarus: fair transparent elections in line with international standards.”
But there was little optimism among foreign observers for a more democratic vote.
“The campaign so far is low-key, with a limited number of events organised,” the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, an international election and war monitor, said in a report this month.
People did not expect polls to be “genuinely competitive” and “had little confidence in the process”, the report added.
The OSCE is sending 400 observers to monitor the polls. It has not recognised any elections in Belarus since 1995 as free and fair.
An alliance of rights activists said opposition candidates were unable to get their speeches broadcast, condemning “censorship and unacceptable restrictions on freedom of expression”.
Opposition parties complained they had had difficulty registering candidates and even observers.