Opposition reports Belarus polls infractions as strongman woos West

Tatiana Kalinovskaya
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Those critical of Lukashenko faced little choice at the ballot box, with the main opposition leaders and the only two current opposition MPs barred from standing

Belarusians voted in parliamentary polls on Sunday with opposition observers reporting mass violations, despite strongman Alexander Lukashenko's recent attempts to build closer ties with the West.

President Lukashenko -- who has been dubbed "Europe's last dictator" -- has ruled the ex-Soviet nation since 1994 and overseen a series of elections that international observers have deemed unfair.

Voters were on Sunday electing the 110 MPs of the House of Representatives, the lower chamber in what the opposition calls a rubber-stamp parliament. The turnout reached 55 percent by mid-afternoon, beating the 50 percent threshold to make the vote valid.

After casting his vote, Lukashenko told journalists "Of course I am concerned how the elections will be viewed in the West.. and in Austria and in the European Union" but added: "I'm not accustomed to fret about this... We hold this vote in our country for our people, to make things better, and we hold it in the way we understand."

Those critical of Lukashenko faced little choice at the ballot box, with the main opposition leaders and the only two current opposition MPs barred from standing.

An election monitoring campaign organised by opposition parties reported 594 violations by mid-afternoon, mostly officials inflating voter numbers at polling stations compared with observers' counts.

Rights activists monitoring the vote complained observers were thrown out, banned from taking photographs and had their view blocked.

According to the authorities, more than 35 percent of the 6.8 million electorate voted ahead of polling day through absentee ballots.

- Cold dead hands -

"If society doesn't like how the president organises this (vote), they can choose a fresh one next year," Lukashenko said, confirming he will stand in presidential polls in 2020.

"I won't cling on to my seat with my cold dead hands," said the 65-year-old former collective farm director.

Such defiant rhetoric comes despite Lukashenko making renewed attempts to reach out to Western nations, which have been critical of his record on human rights and democracy.

He made a rare visit to western Europe this month, meeting Austrian leaders in Vienna and saying he wanted the European Union to be "an important political and business partner" for his country.

He also hosted then White House national security advisor John Bolton for rare talks in Minsk in August, saying a "new chapter" was opening in ties with Washington.

Lukashenko is looking to the West to take further steps after already lifting some sanctions imposed after a 2011 crackdown on protests.

However the strongman assured voters Sunday: "Under Lukashenko, no one will drag Belarus to the West."

He is also seeking a counterweight in relations with giant neighbour Russia, which is keen to ensure Belarus remains in its sphere of influence.

The countries have formed a nominal "union", with close trade and military cooperation, but Lukashenko has opposed outright unification.

"Who the hell needs a union like that?" Lukashenko said Sunday, complaining Russia keeps "sneaking in new conditions."

- EU urges fair vote -

EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said the bloc was watching Sunday's election closely.

"Our standards when it comes to elections are very high," she told reporters in Brussels. "We expect nothing else when it comes to Belarus: fair transparent elections in line with international standards."

But there was little optimism among foreign observers for a more democratic vote.

People did not expect polls to be "genuinely competitive" and "had little confidence in the process", the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, an international election and war monitor, said in a preliminary report.

The OSCE was sending 400 observers to monitor the polls. It has not recognised any elections in Belarus since 1995 as free and fair.

Opposition parties complained they had had difficulty registering candidates and even observers.

Nikolai Kozlov, leader of the United Civic Front opposition party, told AFP that only 37 of its 54 candidates had been allowed to stand and slammed the polls as utterly predictable.

"We already know, 99 percent, who will win in each district," he told AFP.

Political analyst Valery Karbalevich said that with ties with the West already improving, authorities saw little reason to loosen their grip.

"The problems of democracy and human rights... have faded into the background," he said.

"For the authorities, there is more to lose than to gain from an opposition election campaign."