Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko failed to participate Saturday in a nationally televised presidential election debate together with opposition candidates.
Ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for Dec. 19, Lukashenko did not participate in a televised debate with nine opposition candidates broadcasted on Belarus' state-owned television Channel One, reported independent online newspaper Belorusskie Novosti.
Candidates of the opposition managed to turn the presidential election debate into an attack on the current government, specifically targeting the incumbent president.
The only previously televised Belarusian presidential election debate took place 16 years ago, with Lukashenko as the opposition candidate running against Soviet-time leader Vyacheslav Kebich. Lukashenko's popular performance contributed to his election victory in 1994.
However, after being elected as president, Lukashenko decided to impose censorship and put the country's media under governmental control, Belorusskie Novosti said.
Despite attempts by the television hosts to embroil the candidates in debate, the latter were united in criticizing the authorities and the electoral laws, as well as offering alternatives for the country's development.
"The TV hosts of the broadcasted debate were supposed to make the presidential candidates compete and argue with each other. However, the candidates managed to lead the discussion into a more general field raising questions about fair elections in Belarus and people's right of choice" said political analyst Valeriy Karbalevich, according to Belorusskie Novosti.
One of the candidates Vladimir Nyaklyayew, leader of the political "Tell the Truth!" movement left the debate early to protest Lukashenko's absence, without whom, according to Nyaklyayew, the whole discussion did not make sense.
The remaining candidates took the opportunity to deliver campaign speeches and calls for free and fair elections live during the hour-long television program.
The candidates were united in their calls to the public to join them on Minsk's central Kastrychnitskaya Square on Dec. 19 to protest possible vote fraud.
"We have one big problem - the stone that lies in the middle of the road. Dec. 19 is the time of a big cleanup. Come and remove this stone. I am ready to assume responsibility for the protest in the square," said Mikalay Statkevich, chairman of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party, in an emotional speech.