Belarus goes to polls in vote slammed by opposition

Belarus goes to polls in vote slammed by opposition

Minsk (AFP) - Ex-Soviet state Belarus went to the polls Sunday for elections expected to see supporters of strongman Alexander Lukashenko fill the legislature, as the opposition branded the process a farce.

Belarus, which has been ruled by the authoritarian Lukashenko for more than two decades, has a history of stifling dissent and cracking down on the opposition.

Some 200 opposition candidates are vying for slots in the 110-seat parliament, but many have already said that the electoral process was unfair and would be marred by violations.

"I am convinced that not a single opposition candidate will make it through to parliament," Alaksiej Janukievic, chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF) opposition party, told AFP.

"There will only be lawmakers approved by the authorities."

Electoral commission president Lidia Ermochina insisted, however, that "we can be certain that parliament was chosen legally."

She added that turnout had been above the 50 percent necessary for the poll to be considered valid.

The main opposition parties did not take part in the last parliamentary elections in 2012, which international observers said had been neither free nor fair.

Political scientist Dmitry Bolkunets said that the participation of opposition parties was Minsk's way of responding to Western calls for more transparency.

"Belarusian authorities have organised the most 'democratic' elections since 2000 to please Brussels and Washington," Bolkunets wrote in an op-ed published on the website of Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio station.

"But as soon as the polling stations close, this whole democracy game will end."

The Viasna human rights organisation said there had been many cases of people being forced to take part in early voting.

"The opposition has no chance," rights activist Vladimir Labkovich told AFP.

"There is no liberalisation of the electoral process. Everything has just gotten worse."

Viasna said several voters had reported administrative difficulties preventing them from casting their ballots.

Lukashenko cracked down hard on opposition and free media following a December 2010 election which gave him a fourth term but was slammed as fraudulent by his opponents.

His subsequent incarceration of opponents led to his international isolation and the imposition of Western sanctions against him.

The bulk of the sanctions were lifted last year after Lukashenko released all remaining political prisoners and was reelected for a fifth term by a landslide without incident, even though the vote fell short of Belarus' pledge to hold fair polls.

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