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Belarus: Polls Reveal Support For Lukashenka, But Enough To Change The Constitution?

  • Valentinas Mite

http://gdb.rferl.org/18AFE290-F1D9-4865-B8B8-206E7E8D1CE7_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/18AFE290-F1D9-4865-B8B8-206E7E8D1CE7_mw800_mh600.jpg Still popular Though considered a pariah in the West, polls indicate that many Belarusians approve of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's policies. But these same polls show voters as seemingly reluctant to change the constitution to allow him to serve a third term in office A referendum scheduled for 17 October -- the same day as parliamentary elections -- will ask voters whether they favor removing an article in the Belarusian constitution that limits the president to serving two consecutive five-year terms. Lukashenka's second term in office expires in 2006. As RFE/RL reports, one key question is whether voter turnout will reach the threshold needed for the referendum to be valid.

Prague, 7 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Two recent opinion surveys conducted by respected polling firms have found that many Belarusians express confidence in the leadership of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

The Lithuanian polling company Baltic Surveys, which is affiliated with the Gallup Organization, conducts opinion surveys in Belarus on a regular basis. The director general of the company, Rasa Alisauskiene, says recent polls by her firm indicate that Lukashenka would enjoy significant support if he does run again for president.

"Currently, 34.5 percent say they would vote for Lukashenka in any [future] presidential election, [while] 31.5 percent say they would prefer another candidate. Twenty-four percent have no opinion," Alisauskiene says.
"The pro-president propaganda is getting stronger and stronger in the country."


However, Alisauskiene says, Belarusians appear less inclined to make changes to the Belarusian constitution necessary for Lukashenka to run again.

"During the last month, the number of people who support the referendum and changes in the constitution enabling Lukashenka to run for president for a third time has increased only slightly -- by some 2 percent. The number of those opposed did not change. The number of undecided voters remains the same -- around one-fourth of all voters. The latest figures say 35.7 percent support the referendum, 44 percent are against," Alisauskiene says.

For the 17 October referendum to be valid, more than half of all registered voters in the country must support it. Polls show that some 75 percent of registered voters in Belarus say they will turn up at the polls.

Yuri Levada is the head of Yuri Levada's Analytical Center, an independent opinion research firm in Moscow. He says a survey conducted by the center a few weeks ago indicates it will be difficult for Lukashenka to reach the absolute majority of registered voters needed to approve the constitutional changes.

"Alyaksandr Lukashenka will probably get a majority of those voters who come out to vote. However, according to the Belarusian referendum law, as far as I know, an absolute majority of all registered voters is required. There is no such majority [at the moment]," Levada said.

Nevertheless, polls by the Levada Center show Lukashenka is the country's most popular politician and that his policies enjoy broad popular support. Some 62 percent of respondents say they approve of Lukashenka as president, while 53 percent say they believe the country is moving in the right direction.

Alyaksandr Sosnov is deputy director of the Minsk-based Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies. He says he is not surprised that Lukashenka's popularity is high, considering what he calls the "one-sided propaganda" put out by his administration.

"The pro-president propaganda is getting stronger and stronger in the country. Actually, it is one-sided. Practically nothing is allowed for anybody [who is opposed to Lukashenka]," Sosnov said.

Sosnov says Lukashenka enjoys the support of the state bureaucracy. His loyalists are active everywhere -- at workplaces, schools, universities, even hospitals. Sosnov says the government exploits all of the country's television channels to its advantage.

"According to our information, some 90 percent of the population gets its information from state-owned media and fully trust what they hear," Sosnov says. "This media glorifies Lukashenka and ruthlessly attacks the opposition."

He says the authorities have granted time to opposition politicians to express their views on television, but he notes that such statements are pre-recorded and aired at unpopular times.

Alisauskiene says Lukashenka's popularity can largely be explained by the weak and divided political opposition. She says it is difficult to have a strong alternative leader in a country where the opposition is so firmly repressed and where a free media is almost nonexistent.

Sosnov says the authorities are also taking what he called more "practical steps" to gain support.

"Beginning in August, pensions went up some 20 percent, and this has had a big influence on the attitudes of pensioners. And the media keeps saying that starting in November, wages also will rise some 20 per cent. It has an influence," Sosnov says.

Lukashenka was first elected president on 10 July 1994. The president's power increased considerably as a result of a 1996 plebiscite that stripped parliament of many of its powers and extended his term until 2001. Most Western countries and international organizations called the results of the referendum illegitimate.

Lukashenka's re-election in September 2001 was also not recognized as free and fair by European observers.

(RFE/RL's Belarus Service contributed to this story.)
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