Amid opposition boycott, Belarus leader praises 'boring and calm' election

Belarus opposition parties boycotted, urging people to go fishing instead of voting in parliamentary elections marred by intimidation and fraud. President Lukashenko called the move cowardly.

Vladimir Nikolsky/Reuters
A woman casts her vote into a portable ballot box during the parliamentary elections near her house in the village of Slobodschina, about 19 miles northeast of Minsk, September 23. Belarus voted on Sunday in a parliamentary election which was likely to reinforce hardline President Alexander Lukashenko's grip on the small former-Soviet country despite a boycott call from the dispirited opposition.

Belarussians voted for a new parliament Sunday in one of the most empty and one-sided elections to be held in the former Soviet republic of about 10 million since the demise of the USSR.        

The country's two main opposition parties were boycotting the voting, citing fraud and impossible conditions for campaigning. About 40 candidates from small leftist parties are still in the running, but are given little chance.

Most Belarussian observers say the token parliament's 110 seats will almost certainly be filled with loyalists of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus in an increasingly top-down and heavyhanded way for the past 18 years.

Mr. Lukashenko treated journalists to his usual colorful jibes after voting Sunday, with his 7-year-old son by his side, in Minsk.

"They are cowards who have nothing to say to their people," he said, referring to the decision of the United Civic and Belarussian People's Front parties, and four smaller groups, to ask people to go fishing or mushroom-gathering rather than participate in a "rubber-stamping farce."

Explaining their choice to pull out of the election, the United Civic party pointed out last week that 33 out of 35 of its candidates were barred from using their legally guaranteed television time, while no newspaper would publish the party program as required by law.

"Either we restore genuine elections of the president and parliament in Belarus, or it is better to cancel this imitation of democracy we are witnessing," United Civic leader Anatol Lyabedzka told Radio Liberty last week.

They also argued that many key opposition leaders remain in prison, including almost all of the candidates who ran against Lukashenko in presidential polls that were won by Lukashenko in a deeply disputed landslide.

Accelerating crackdown

Since then, a crackdown against all forms of civil dissent has picked up in Belarus, including large-scale arrests of people who participate in hand-clapping flash mobs to protest Lukashenko's tough rule, and harsh measures directed against anyone allegedly associated with a summer teddy-bear drop initiated by a Swedish group that hoped to mobilize the power of laughter against Belarus's strongman.

"Every political race follows certain laws, and everyone knows that," Lukashenko told journalists Sunday. "You're a coward or a pseudo-politician if you don't go all the way to the finish. If you have negative information, bring it up when the election is over. First you need to test your popularity and learn if people know you at all. Try and see if you should continue leading your party or give room for somebody else," he added.        

After the 2010 post-election crackdown, Belarus faced increased sanctions from a disappointed European Union – which had promised better relations if there were fair presidential polls – and even a colder shoulder from its only ally, Russia.

Relations with Russia have improved, and Lukashenko told journalists that he hopes ties with Europe will get better as a result of Sunday's voting.

"I have to hope for improvement. But we do not hold elections for the West, the real 'author' of the vote is the Belarussian nation," Lukashenko told the Russian official RIA-Novosti news agency.

"If this time anyone criticizes and shows suspicion about the elections, then I do not know what other acts we could possibly pass....  Let them be jealous of our elections. Boring and calm elections – this is a bliss for our nation. We do not need revolutions, clashes or civic outrages," he added. 

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