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In Europe's sketchiest election, Belarus votes in entirely pro-government parliament (+video)

Not a single member of an opposition party won seat in Belarus's parliamentary elections, which have been widely condemned by international observers.

By Yuras KarmanauAssociated Press / September 24, 2012

Members of the election commission wait for voters at a polling station during parliamentary elections in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday. The main opposition parties have boycotted parliamentary elections to protest the detention of political prisoners and alleged opportunities for election fraud.

Dmitry Brushko/AP

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Minsk, Belarus

Not a single opposition politician won a seat in Belarus's parliament in a weekend vote that has been condemned by international observers and looks set to deepen the former Soviet nation's diplomatic isolation.

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Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko calls his opponents "cowards" after they call for a boycott of parliamentary elections. Andrew Raven reports.

Critics also said the 74.3 percent turnout reported by the Central Elections Commission chairman on Monday was way too high and indicated widespread fraud.

The main opposition parties, which were ignored by state-run media, boycotted the election to protest the detention of political prisoners and ample opportunities for election fraud.

The vote filled the parliament with representatives of three parties that have backed the policy agenda of President Alexander Lukashenko.

"This election was not competitive from the start," said Matteo Mecacci, leader of the observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "A free election depends on people being free to speak, organize, and run for office, and we didn't see that in this campaign."

Belarus's parliament has long been considered a rubber-stamp body for Mr. 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 estimated the overall turnout as being almost 19 percent lower than the official 74.3 percent figure.

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

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

Political analyst Leonid Zaiko said the way the elections were held highlighted 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," Mr. Zaiko said.

Lukashenko's landslide win in the 2010 presidential election triggered a mass street protest against election fraud that was brutally suppressed. Some of the 700 people arrested at that protest are still in jail, including presidential candidate Nikolai Statkevich.

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

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 United Civil Party and another leading opposition party, the Belarusian Popular Front, pulled their candidates off the ballot and urged voters not to show up at the polls a week before the election.

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.

"The aim of giving President Lukashenko's regime the appearance of democratic legitimacy has clearly failed," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement. "In view of the glaring irregularities in these elections, it is clearly visible for everyone what Belarus is today: the last dictatorship in the heart of Europe."

Westerwelle said Germany and its European partners would step up their efforts to push for the release of political prisoners and isolate Lukashenko and his regime.

EU foreign ministers are due to hold talks in Brussels next month on political freedoms in Belarus. They are expected to consider possible revisions to sanctions against the country aimed at more specifically targeting those in the leadership deemed responsible for the political crackdown.

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Geir Moulson contributed to this report from Berlin.

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