Opposition Claims Fraud As Belarus Votes For President

Belarusians are voting in an election that is expected to extend President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's 16-year hold on power by another five years.

In seeking his fourth term as president, Lukashenka is running against nine challengers -- each of whom has faced administrative problems that have become common for any opposition candidates in Belarus.

As voting got under way, several opposition candidates already were claiming fraud and election irregularities. They called for a demonstration at October Square in Minsk after the polls close.

Those critics include Andrei Sannikau -- a former deputy foreign minister who quit that post in 1996 and went into opposition against Lukashenka.

"It is clear that the Electoral Commission will be announcing results in Lukashenka's favor," Sannikau said, adding that no candidate is likely to garner more than 50 percent of the vote in one round. "In any normal country, with so many candidates, such an election would automatically go to a second round; so if they tell us there is no second round, this means the results are a lie and fraudulent. We will protest against it."

RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported that discrepancies emerged in the number of early voters in 86 of around 250 locations in Belarus being cited by local election watchers from the Campaign For Fair Elections.

Chilly Mood

Presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyayev, head of the opposition Govori Pravdu (Tell the Truth) movement, is expected to finish a distant second behind Lukashenka. He said on the eve of the vote that the only mechanism available to oppose fraudulent elections was to attend the October Square demonstration after the vote.

Another presidential candidate, Mikalay Statkievich, told RFE/RL he did not cast a ballot because the run-up to the vote was neither free nor fair.

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka votes alongside son Nikolay in Minsk on December 19.

"Those who hoped for some kind of liberalization, some kind of second round, I think they have made a big mistake," Statkievich said. "We have no other choice but to force them into democracy, and there is only one instrument for that -- The Square."

But correspondents in Belarus said political fervor was in short supply amid freezing temperatures on the snow-filled streets of Minsk -- raising doubts about whether the October Square rally would gather enough demonstrators to have any impact.

Poor Record

The European Union, trying to loosen up Lukashenka's authoritarian rule, has been dangling the prospect of financial aid for Belarus if the vote has at least a veneer of fairness.

Brussels will take its cue from 400 monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) who have spread out across the country and are to report on December 20 about the conduct of the election.

The findings of the OSCE monitors -- along with Lukashenka's margin of victory and the way security forces handle opposition protests -- could determine how far the European Union decides to engage Belarus in the future.

The OECD has never recognized a Belarusian vote as having met democracy or fairness standards.

Meanwhile, Lukashenka appeared to have repaired relations with his chief benefactor, Russia. Those ties have been frayed by a falling out with the Kremlin in recent years. But Lukashenka appeared to patch things up with the Kremlin last week when Russia agreed to drop duties on oil exports to Belarus and keep natural gas prices for Belarus unchanged next year.

Moscow has been angry about several foreign policy snubs committed by Lukashenka. That raised hopes among EU officials that Lukashenka might open up the Belarusian economy and loosen his political grip in return for EU financial support.

compiled from RFE/RL and agency reports


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