Communists Lead as Belarus Votes

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SIX months after apathetic voters failed to elect enough legislators to open parliament, Belarus's president, Alexander Lukashenko, says he will rule by decree if they don't finish the job in a second round of elections held yesterday.

Attendance was low again yesterday despite the day being declared a holiday in hopes of boosting turnout.

In the May elections, only 119 members were elected for the 260-seat legislature - below the minimum 179 required. In the other districts, voter turnout was below the 50 percent threshold necessary for the results to be valid.

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In the first four hours of voting yesterday, just 5.58 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballots, and only 2.2 percent in the capital, Minsk, Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency said.

About 860 candidates representing more than 30 political parties are running for the 141 remaining seats.

According to pollsters, the Communists are in the lead, trailed by the nationalist Belarussian Popular Front, the Agrarian Party (made up of state farm directors), and the moderate Social Democratic Union.

Belarus has a parliamentary system with a prime minister, but President Lukashenko warned that he would introduce direct presidential rule if voters did not elect enough legislators.

Belarus, a nation of 10.4 million people on Russia's western border, has only reluctantly embraced the independence thrust upon it by the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

In a referendum held last May along with parliamentary elections, an overwhelming majority of Belarussians voted for closer economic integration with Russia and to make Russian their official language

''I always vote for Communists. When they were in power, my pension was enough to live on and buy sweets for my grandchildren,'' says pensioner Pyotr Antonyuik.

Other voters said parties did not matter, and others were simply confused by the diverse choices.

Irina Trukhan, a computer programmer, says she voted for the former head of the Central Bank, who is considered a reformer.

''I do not care what party he heads. All that is important for me is that he is an honest man and a good professional,'' she says. ''Someone must carry out reforms and defend Belarus from dictatorship.''

After seeing a poster in a shop, Mariya Makeichik decided to vote for a doctor who promised a new bus line for her neighborhood.

''I did not know for whom to vote,'' says Ms. Makeichik, a sales assistant.

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