Belarus elects entirely pro-government parliament
MINSK, Belarus (AP) — International observers on Monday condemned a weekend vote in Belarus in which not a single opposition politician won a parliament seat. The election looks set to deepen the former Soviet nation's diplomatic isolation.
Critics also said the 74.3 percent turnout reported Monday by the country's Central Elections Commission chairman 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 the ample opportunities for election fraud.
The vote filled parliament with representatives of the three parties that have backed the policies of authoritarian 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' parliament has long been considered a rubber-stamp body for Lukashenko's policies. He has ruled Belarus since 1994 and Western observers have criticized all recent elections there 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," 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 hold talks in Brussels next month on political freedom 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.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule lamented that "the elections took place against the background of an overall climate of repression and intimidation" and described it as "yet another missed opportunity to conduct elections in line with international standards in Belarus."
Geir Moulson in Berlin and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.