Authorities in Belarus said they had a strong turnout in a parliamentary election yesterday (23 September) after hardline President Alexander Lukashenko denounced opposition leaders as "cowards" for urging people to boycott it as a sham exercise.
The two main opposition parties had called on people to go mushrooming or fishing and abstain from voting in an election which they said would produce a token parliament to rubber-stamp directives by Lukashenko.
"Elections took place in the course of which 109 deputies were elected …," Lidiya Yermoshina, head of the central election committee, told a news conference early today.
She said turnout had been strong at 74.3%, but made no comment on whether the boycott call by the opposition had had any effect.
Asked whether any opposition candidates had been elected, she replied: "It seems doubtful to me".
The call for voters to shun the election prompted a sneering rebuke from Lukashenko, a populist who has run the former Soviet republic of 9.5 million with an iron fist since 1994 and has stifled any opposition to his rule (see background).
"They are cowards who have nothing to say to the people," he told journalists on Sunday after voting in Minsk.
In the one seat which had not been decided, an opposition candidate failed to secure more than half the votes and a second round of voting would be held, Yermoshina said.
The opposition United Civic Party and the Belarussian People's Front called for the boycott in protest at the continued detention of political prisoners and election fraud.
But voting by students, armed service staff and police produced a 26% turnout in early voting and there was never any doubt that the ballot would be declared valid.
The 110-seat parliament is made up mainly of independent candidates, few of whom are fielded by political parties, and its deputies rarely initiate any legislation of their own.
The outcome could enable Lukashenko to present the election as a genuine democratic exercise. Western monitoring agencies have not judged an election in Belarus free and fair since 1995.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe sent in 330 observers for the election.
Defending his 18-year rule and intolerance of dissent, Lukashenko, a former Soviet state farm boss who was once described by the US administration of George W. Bush as Europe's last dictator, said on Sunday: "We don't need revolutions and shake-ups."
"If this time round there is doubt cast on the choice of the Belarussian people then I don't know what standards will be good enough in future elections," said Lukashenko.
Human rights bodies say the run-up to the poll was marked by arrests and detention of opposition activists.
State-run television and radio made no mention of the boycott call. Opposition groups were prevented from holding street protests or giving out leaflets to support their action and some opposition figures were prevented from registering as candidates for technical reasons.
"These are all banned," said Anatoly Lebedko, head of the United Civic Party, gesturing to a pile of leaflets on his desk, which called on people to take their families to the park, go fishing or stroll in the woods rather than vote.
Lebedko's party posted a video on YouTube featuring activists gathering mushrooms, playing chess and reading books in a park – all as alternatives to going to polling stations.
Elmar Brok MEP and Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, Jacek Protasiewicz MEP and Vice-President of the European Parliament, and Filip Kaczmarek MEP and Chairman of the Delegation for Relations with Belarus, said in a joint statement: "We regret that the conduct of parliamentary elections in Belarus has again fallen short of democratic standards. Despite some minor improvements in the elections' legal framework, leading, for example, to an increase in the number of candidates put forward by political parties, the Belarusian authorities failed to use this chance to conduct fair and transparent elections."
Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the Commission and Štefan Füle, Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, made the following statement:
"Yesterday’s parliamentary elections represent yet another missed opportunity to conduct elections in line with international standards in Belarus.
The EU has followed closely developments during the pre-electoral period and on election day. There were some improvements in the electoral process, such as an improved Electoral Code, but regrettably the elections took place against the background of an overall climate of repression and intimidation."
President Alexander Lukashenko, in power in the nation of nearly 10 million since 1994, has tolerated little dissent, cracking down on public protests and imprisoning opposition leaders. Human rights activists say about 15 people are still kept in Belarussian prisons on political grounds.
Lukashenko’s re-election for a fourth term in December 2010 sparked mass street protests by the opposition, which led to several opposition candidates who ran against him being arrested.
The EU has imposed sanctions on Belarus, but they seem likely to increase the isolation of the country and make it still more reliant on long-time ally Russia, which bailed it out at the peak of a financial crisis in 2011. Lukashenko has relied largely on financial support from Russia, which provides Belarus with cheap energy and other benefits, seeing it as a buffer between itself and NATO.