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Belarus elects entirely pro-government parliament

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Sept. 24, 2012, 2:06 p.m. | Russia and former Soviet Union — by Associated Press

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko with his youngest son Nikolai casts his ballot at a polling station during parliamentary elections in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012. Belarus is holding parliamentary elections Sunday without the main opposition parties, which boycotted the vote to protest the detention of political prisoners and opportunities for election fraud.
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Associated Press

Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus — Not a single opposition politician has won entry into the Belarus parliament after a weekend vote that critics said is the latest move by President Alexander Lukashenko to maintain his tight grip on power. 

Critics said the 74.3 percent turnout reported by Central Elections Commission chairman Lidiya Yermoshina on Monday was way too high. The high turnout meant that all but one of the 110 seats up for grabs cleared a key electoral hurdle. The election resulted in representatives of three parties that have backed the policy agenda of Lukashenko securing slots in parliament.

The main opposition parties had boycotted the election to protest the detention of political prisoners and opportunities for election fraud, leaving only pro-government and relatively marginal opposition groupings with any prospect of winning seats.

Yermoshina dismissed such concerns, saying opposition forces needed to concentrate on improving their performance. "Opposition parties that wish to enter parliament need to think about how they are going to work in future," she said.

The parliament in Belarus has long been considered a rubber stamp body for Lukashenko's policies. He has ruled the former Soviet nation since 1994 and Western observers have criticized all recent elections in Belarus as undemocratic.

Local independent observers described the elections as a sham.

"Belarus gets ever closer to the worst standards of Soviet elections," said Valentin Stefanovich, coordinator of the Rights Activists for Free Elections group.

Local groups estimated the overall turnout as being almost 19 percent lower than the official 74.3 percent figure.

At least 20 independent election observers have been detained, according to rights activists.

Political analyst Leonid Zaiko said the way elections were held pointed to Lukashenko's desire to prepare for another beckoning economic crisis.

"He plans to control the situation with an iron fist. He has no time for any opposition, not on the street and certainly not in parliament," Zaiko said.

Election body head Yermoshina said only one of the 110 seats up for grabs was not allocated due to voter turnout in that district not passing the 50 percent level. According to election rules, another election of the top vote-winners in that one contest will take place.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has fielded 330 observers for Sunday's vote, but two monitors from the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly were denied entry to Belarus without explanation. Its preliminary report on the election was due to be unveiled later Monday.

Lukashenko's landslide win in a 2010 presidential election triggered a mass street protest that was brutally suppressed.

"Elections in those states where they are boring and peaceful are a good thing for the people, not to mention for the government," Lukashenko said after casting his ballot, his 7-year-old son by his side. But he warned that the calm would not last if the opposition mounted a protest.

Opposition politicians have cautioned supporters to refrain from holding protest rallies.

The opposition had hoped to use this election to build support, but 33 of 35 candidates from the United Civil Party were barred from television, while the state-owned press refused to publish their election programs.

The other party that boycotted the vote was the Belarusian Popular Front.

The United States and the European Union have imposed economic and travel sanctions on the Belarusian government over its crackdown on opposition groups and independent news media.

Lukashenko has intensified repression of the opposition since the 2010 presidential election, which triggered a mass protest against election fraud that was dispersed by police. Some of the 700 people arrested at that protest are still in jail, including presidential candidate Nikolai Stankevich. 

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