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Belarus: Eight Candidates Meet First Hurdle In Presidential Vote

  • Valentinas Mite

http://gdb.rferl.org/20db4478-1167-472c-bab0-220ff4b1cf89_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/20db4478-1167-472c-bab0-220ff4b1cf89_mw800_mh600.jpg Opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich (official site) The Central Election Commission of Belarus today registered eight candidates, including incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka, for the March presidential vote. Having cleared one hurdle, the contenders now need to gather 100,000 signatures of support from eligible voters in order to be added to the ballot. The united opposition candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, is among the most prominent challengers. But few are expecting a political upset to ruin Lukashenka's goal of a third term in office.


Prague, 27 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Lukashenka's presidential challengers face several key obstacles ahead of the 19 March poll.

They have limited access to mass media, very little money, and no right to free assembly.

Adding to the difficulties is the fact that local electoral commissions have almost no opposition representatives in their ranks.


Hard To Be In The Opposition

Alyaksandr Milinkevich is considered to have the best chance of any of Lukashenka's challengers.

But he told RFE/RL that Belarusian authorities are making life increasingly difficult for him and his supporters.
"The situation in the country is very difficult. For instance, our [party] activists are being arrested for distributing leaflets about the result of our [party] congress, including information relating to the united opposition candidate," Milinkevich said.

"They [activists] are put on trial; huge fines are imposed. The authorities are afraid of even the smallest piece of alternative information."

Among other challenges, opposition candidate face a shortage of time.


Sudden Rescheduling Good For Lukashenka

The Belarusian parliament moved forward the date of the presidential ballot from July to March, leaving would-be candidates with very little time to register, campaign, and connect with the voting public.

Manaev said the polls indicate Lukashenka is enjoying a strong lead, and would take 52 percent of the vote if it were held today. Milinkevich, by contrast, has just 7-percent support.

Critics say the sudden rescheduling works almost exclusively in Lukashenka's favor.


But Milinkevich said such maneuverings are nothing new -- and that it's important to stay in the race regardless.


"Belarus is the country where laws haven't been observed for a long time already. We know that already for many years the votes haven't been properly counted during elections -- just the desirable results are recorded," he said.


"But nevertheless, we will participate in the elections, because for us it's a chance to meet people, to find ways into their hearts. It's very important for us to see people, and to bring information to them."

Professor Oleg Manaev heads a group of sociologists who have conducted independent public polls ahead of the ballot.

Manaev said the polls indicate Lukashenka is enjoying a strong lead, and would take 52 percent of the vote if it were held today. Milinkevich, by contrast, has just 7 percent support.

But even with little apparent suspense regarding the outcome of the vote, Manaev said the presidential vote is an opportunity for the opposition to gain crucial exposure, saying: "Of course it's not the same as speaking on the floor of parliament, or speaking on Belarussian television, but it's still something."


No Unity

Manaev said the rigors of the election may help notoriously fractious opposition officials patch up their differences and force a unified long-term political strategy.

For now, however, the opposition remains distinctly disparate. There are six opposition candidates in addition to Milinkevich staging a presidential bid.

They are Syarhey Haydukevich, leader of the Belarusian Liberal Democratic Party; Alyaksandr Kazulin, leader of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada); Zyanon Paznyak, the exiled leader of the Conservative Christian Party; and former General Valerii Fralou, who as an opposition lawmaker staged a hunger strike in 2004.

Two additional former lawmakers, Alyaksandr Voytovich and Sergei Skrebets, are also running as independent candidates.

Not all observers are willing to accept the March vote as a fait accompli. Valerii Karbalevich, an analyst with the Strategy political analysis center in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, says it is too early to declare Lukashnka the definite winner.

"It's clear that Lukashenka has the biggest chance of winning, but I won't say it's a 100-percent guarantee, because every campaign brings unexpected things," Karbalevich said. "Experiences in different countries clearly indicate this is so."

Karbalevich didn't specify what, if anything, would provoke a surprise outcome in the presidential vote. But he noted that many people in Belarus, and particularly Minsk, are increasingly unhappy with the economic and social conditions they are subject to under the Lukashenka regime.

Video Roundtable On Belarus/Ukraine


On December 8, 2005, RFE/RL and the Policy Association for an Open Society (PASOS) jointly conducted a roundtable discussion on issues relating to Belarus's post-Soviet transition. To view video of the roundtable, click here.

See also:

Belarus: Authorities 'Cleanse' Media Ahead Of 2006 Vote

Can Belarus's Opposition Unite To Challenge Lukashenka?

Belarus: The Slow-Boiling Dictatorship

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