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Isolated Belarus elects parliament amid boycott

19 september 2012, 18:48
Belarus will on Sunday elect a new parliament in polls largely boycotted by the opposition, almost two years after protests against President Alexander Lukashenko's re-election sparked a mass crackdown, AFP reports.

The authoritarian Lukashenko, in power for 18 years and branded Europe's last dictator by the United States, in December 2010 won a fourth term at the helm of the ex-Soviet state wedged between Russia and the European Union.

When tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest what they believed was a rigged vote, Belarussian authorities responded with a crackdown on dissent, jailing and convicting many of Lukashenko's runners-up, to which the EU reacted by tightening sanctions against the strongman's regime.

One former presidential candidate remains in jail today, along with at least a dozen political activists and human rights campaigners.

With few details in the capital Minsk betraying the fact that elections are looming in the country of 9.5 million people, the biggest intrigue is how many voters the opposition will be able to convince to boycott the polls.

Even the OSCE mission to the country noticed "few signs that elections are taking place", according to its preliminary report Friday, which also noted "concerns" over denial of registration to some candidates.

The 110-member lower chamber of the Belarussian parliament, also known as the House of Representatives, has over its past four-year term been only a seal of approval for the presidential administration, critics said.

"They worked out three bills in their four years of working as lawmakers," said Anatoly Lebedko of the United Civic Party. "The rest is just rubber-stamping what they receive from the president's office."

Lebedko's party is one of two main opposition forces in the country, both of which last week decided to pull their candidates from the race and instead use the campaign resources to convince voters to skip the polls.

Smaller opposition groups, including former presidential candidate Vladimir Nekliayev's Tell The Truth movement, have decided to stay in the race, but the vast majority of the candidates are state-employed and loyal to Lukashenko.

No critical deputies were elected in the previous election in 2008, and opposition parties have dismissed the result as predetermined, due to the domination of Lukashenko's supporters in the voting commissions, which count the votes without supervision.

Independent pollster Oleg Manayev said that up to 20 percent of voters were likely to boycott the vote as a political act, but doubted that the turnout will be lower than the 50 percent which is required to validate the elections.

Belarussian officials fumed at the calls for boycott, with Lukashenko calling it a sure sign of the opposition's foreign allegiances.

"If it was the true opposition, they would fight to the end. If you are just wagging your tongue, then you are carrying out somebody's order or you just want to show off," he said earlier this month.

The leader, who briefly courted the European Union prior to the 2010 polls, now faces multiple sanctions by Western states over human rights abuses and has turned to its eastwardly neighbour Russia for support and financial aid, meeting with President Vladimir Putin on Saturday.

Although the country has recovered from a massive crisis last year which led to multiple devaluations and loss of people's savings, Belarus is still highly dependent on aid and preferential economic treatment from Russia.

Last year it ceded control of its gas transportation network in exchange for a $2.5 billion bailout package.

The EU travel ban now extends to nearly 250 people in Belarus, and dozens of Belarussian companies also face sanctions on doing business with the European body Belarus once aspired to joining.

The country's already strained relations with the European Union were further damaged last month after a group of Swedish nationals flew a bi-plane over Belarus and air-dropped hundreds of teddy bears with pro-human rights signs.

Lukashenko responded by firing top border and military officials, along with the foreign minister, and expelled all of Sweden's diplomats from the country.

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