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Recent Belarus Parliamentary Elections Not Up To International Standards

By Andre de Nesnera


07 October 2008

In September parliamentary elections were held in Belarus. In this report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at what the results mean for the political life in the former Soviet republic, governed by authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko.

All 110 seats in the Belarus parliament were contested, with 78 opposition candidates appearing on the ballot. But when the final tally was counted, not a single candidate opposed to President Alexander Lukashenko won a seat.

International observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe say the election fell short of democratic standards.

Klas Bergman was one of the OSCE observers. "Negative aspects were, of course, an election campaign which was extremely controlled - very little actual debate, very little campaigning in a free, democratic sense," he said. "On election day, the voting largely took place in a well-organized and calm atmosphere."

"We were well received at almost all of the polling stations where we sent observers - if not all of them. The big drawback came as the polls closed and when vote counting started - that's when we encountered a lot of problems," he added.

Bergman says the key problem was access to the vote count. "The fact that we could not really oversee how the counting was done and how it proceeded," he said. "Some of the observers were actually prevented from overviewing the vote count and we have some incidences of falsifications."

Before the vote, President Lukashenko said the balloting would be unprecedented in its fairness. But the OSCE said that was not the case, indicating the vote counting process was bad or very bad in 48 percent of polling stations visited.

But Russia praised the elections and criticized the OSCE assessment. President Lukashenko told OSCE observers that the elections were conducted in line with Belarusian law.

David Marples, from the University of Edmonton [in Alberta, Canada] says with no opposition to speak of in parliament, that body is in essence a rubber-stamp legislature, agreeing to every policy presented by Mr. Lukashenko.

"Back in 1996, when the constitution was amended, parliament really has played a secondary role to the presidency in the political life of Belarus," said Marples. "The president has the most powerful position - he can replace the prime minister. It is more of a talking shop, in other words, the parliament."

"But nevertheless, as a kind of facade of the political life, it gives an impression that Belarus does have some form of legislature where debates can take place and laws can be discussed. So I think it is kind of important for a president to retain a parliament - but obviously he does not want opposition members in this parliament," he continued.

Since coming to power in 1994, Mr. Lukashenko has governed Belarus with an iron fist, controlling the press, severely limiting opposing activities and cracking down on any form of dissent.

Columbia University's Robert Legvold says the repression of human rights is even felt in universities. "The establishment of almost an ideological test within universities - that is universities had to conform to the standards and the agenda and the objectives - the political objectives - of the regime," he said.

"And over the years, going back to 1996, there have been constant struggles over the repression: if there are demonstrations of a few hundred people, heads are cracked and people are arrested. The most recent serious set of concerns or next to the most recent, were the elections in March 2006 where there were large crowds that assembled - it began to look a little bit like the 'color revolutions' [Georgia, Ukraine], at least in Lukashenko's mind - and that was repressed," he added.

Because of Mr. Lukashenko's repressive measures, western governments have described Belarus as the last dictatorship in Europe. Analysts say the recent parliamentary elections indicate very little has changed in that former Soviet republic.

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