Western Observers Call Belarus Election a 'Failure'
James Brooke | Minsk 20 December 2010
Belarus's presidential candidate Grigory Kostusyev says he was held by secret police and pressured to renounce his colleagues before being released. He said candidate Dmitry Uss also had been released, after being among seven opposition candidates jailed following Sunday's election. European observers declared Belarus' election a failure.
European observers on Monday declared Belarus' presidential election a "failure." That assessment will likely to cause the European Union to withdraw its offer of nearly $4 billion in credits to President Lukashenko if he carried out a free and fair election.
European observers reported that vote counting was "bad" or "very bad" at almost half of polling stations they visited, according to Geert Ahrens, head of the election observer team of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE. "The election is a failure."
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The main problem, the German diplomat said, was the secret counting of votes by Belarus government employees. Last year, the European Union had offered Belarus up to $4-billion in aid and credits last month, if the government here carried out elections deemed free and fair by the OSCE.
On Monday, Belarus Central Elections Commission Chairwoman Lidia Yermoshina disregarded domestic and foreign complaints about the secret vote count, and announced that Mr. Lukashenko had won 79.7 percent of the vote.
Yermoshina said that second place candidate Andrei Sannikov received only 2.6 percent of the vote. None of the eight other opposition candidates drew more than two percent of the vote, she said. About 6.4 million people, 91 percent of the electorate, reportedly turned out for the election. The government banned private companies from conducting exit polls.
The White House says Washington does not accept the results of the presidential election announced by the Belarussian Central Election Commission.
The number of votes Mr. Lukashenko received was slightly more than what he had predicted, but slightly less than the 83 percent of the vote he won in the 2006 elections. After that election, he said he actually had received more votes, but that he had reduced the number to make it look more democratic.
Already Europe's longest-serving president, Mr. Lukashenko's tenure in this former Soviet republic will run through 2015, which would make 21 years in office.
After learning that ballots would be be counted in secret, opposition leaders called a mass demonstration Sunday. Almost 1,000 people were jailed, including seven of the nine opposition presidential candidates.
At the press conference, Mr. Lukashenko criticized his opponents.
According to the opposition Committee for Free Elections, the presidential candidates are being held incommunicado in Minsk. On Monday, police raided the committee's offices, seizing its computers and detaining several of its members for two hours.
Germany, Poland, the European Union and the United States have condemned the arrests. The U.S. State Department called the actions "a clear step backwards on issues central to our relationship with Belarus."
Presidential candidate Vladimir Nikolyaev and several dozen supporters were attacked by men armed with stun grenades Sunday as they walked from their party's offices to the demonstration in Minsk. Mr. Nikolyaev was knocked out and taken to the hospital.
According to his wife Olga Nikolyaevna, government security agents entered the candidate's the hospital room and carried her husband away.
Nikolyaevna told an OSCE press conference, "I do not know where my husband is. Who took him by force, and where?"
Later Monday, President Lukashenko said her husband was in a secret police isolation cell.
Yaroslavl Romanchuk, one of the few opposition candidates who was not arrested, appeared on state television Monday, saying he opposed marching on the Central Election Commission.
Normally, a fluid speaker, Romanchuk appeared nervous and tired as he read a prepared statement.
State television has focused on the actions of about 50 protesters who attacked the government administration building Sunday.
State television largely has ignored Sunday's massive, overwhelmingly peaceful march through the center of Minsk by an estimated 40,000 people.
Belarus Interior Ministry Spokesman Anatoly Kuleshov told state television that 30 policemen were wounded Sunday. He did not mention the dozens of demonstrators and journalists who were clubbed by riot police.
The police spokesman said that participants in the attack on the state administration building could face up to 15 years in prison.
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