PRAGUE, 27 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Today is the final day for presidential hopefuls to collect the minimum of 100,000 signatures required to register as candidates in the 19 March vote.
Analysts and politicians have little doubt as to who will meet the requirements to run in the election.
The secretary of the central election commission, Mikolai Lazavik, told ITAR-TASS news agency he believes there will be four candidates left after the signatures are checked by local election committees.
He named President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, Liberal Democratic Party leader Syarhey Haydukevich, and Social Democratic leader Alyaksandr Kozulin.
Alyaksandr Klaskouski, who edits "Novosti," a Belarusian Internet publication, tells RFE/RL he agrees with the official: "I think it is likely that these people, plus the acting head of state [Lukashenka.] These people are Syarhey Haydukevich, and two more opposition candidates -- Alyaksandr Milinkevich and Alyaksandr Kozulin."
Most opposition democratic parties are backing Milinkevich as their candidate in an election that many observers expect to be managed in favor of the current president.
Klaskouski says that state owned-media have already announced that Lukashenka was the most successful in the signature-gathering phase of the electoral process. Reports say he collected nearly 2 million signatures out of a total of 7 million potential voters.
"I think that finally there will be some two million signatures collected on behalf on the incumbent president. Anyway, it is five times more than in [the presidential campaign of] 2001," Klaskouski says.
Lukashenka gained the right to run for an unprecedented third term last year via a referendum he himself proposed. Since becoming president in 1994 he has left a legacy of destroying his opposition and independent media. Lukashenka is often referred to as "Europe's last dictator" in the West.
It might take up to 10 days for local election committees to check the signatures submitted by potential candidates, and then the election campaign starts.
Klaskouski says one month is too short a period for the candidates to start campaigning in earnest. Opposition candidates lack funds and access to the country's state-owned media: "It is less that a month [for the campaigning] and it is a very short span of time. Using any kind of contributions, especially some kind of sponsorship coming from abroad, is strongly punishable according to the Belarusian laws. Concerning airtime on TV, I think during the last election there were 2 1/2 hours [for each candidate,] now, if I am not mistaken -- only one hour."
Any journalist found to have discredited Belarus or its leadership faces up to two years in prison.
The Council of Europe this week called on Lukashenka not to obstruct the holding of a free and fair presidential election.
However, some candidates have already decided to withdraw without a fight.
The self-exiled leader of Belarus' Conservative Christian Party, Zyanon Paznyak, told RFE/RL yesterday he was leaving the race.
"On 18 January, the Central Election Commission made it clear to me in its ultimatum that signatures collected by my group would not be recognized," Paznyak said. "The daily unlawful detentions and arrests of my [signature] collectors, police reports being compiled and passed on to the Central Election Commission clearly show what they are preparing and what is going to happen."
This week, opposition candidate Syarhey Skrabets also withdrew in favor of Social Democratic leader Kozulin. He said a fair vote is impossible.
Earlier this month, Alyaksandr Voytovich, former chairman of the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament, also decided against contesting the election.
'A CENTRAL-ASIAN LEVEL OF PRESS FREEDOM':
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) calls the current conditions for journalists in Belarus "frightening."
CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator ALEX LUPIS, who had just returned from a trip to Belarus, told an RFE/RL briefing on 15 February that he found conditions that make it almost impossible for journalists to report independently on the campaign leading to the country's 19 March presidential election.
Lupis said the Belarusian government is "criminalizing" independent journalism, and forcing journalists to leave the country, change professions or join the state-controlled media. There is a "Cold War atmosphere" in Belarus, Lupis said, adding that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka makes up the rules of the game. The Internet, he said, is the "last free outlet" where independent journalists can publish, but Russia and Belarus are updating their media laws in order to restrict Internet usage. Numerous journalists with whom Lupis spoke said that they miss the support they used to receive from nongovernmental organizations such as IREX and Internews, which were once active in Belarus.
Lupis believes that the government in Belarus bans independent journalism because it fundamentally "mistrusts its own people."
Listen to the complete panel discussion (about 60 minutes):
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See these RFE/RL stories on the media in Belarus:
Independent Newspaper Struggles Against State Interference
EU-Funded Media Broadcasts To Start Before March Elections
Authorities 'Cleanse' Media Ahead Of 2006 Vote
Click on the image to view a dedicated page with news, analysis, and background information about the Belarusian presidential ballot.
Click on the image to view RFE/RL's coverage of the election campaign in Belarusian and to listen to RFE/RL's Belarusian Service.