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Belarusian Opposition Averts Split, Stays In Election

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, 02Jul2008

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, 02Jul2008

MINSK (Reuters) -- Belarus's liberal and nationalist opposition has overcome divisions and agreed not to boycott parliamentary elections that the former Soviet republic hopes will improve its poor relations with the West.

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, long accused by the West of human rights abuses, has staked his hopes on the September 28 vote to secure legitimacy from the United States and European Union. Both see the poll as a test of Belarus's democratic credentials.

A council of the disparate groups making up the opposition said it would proceed with the campaign despite calls by some activists for a boycott. Since the mid-1990s, no election in Belarus has been deemed free and fair in the West.

"We propose that our candidates carry on to the end while producing evidence of vote-rigging," veteran opposition figure Anatol Lyabedzka of the United Civic Party told the meeting.

"Naturally, if it turns out that the election is not legitimate, we will ask our followers to protest peacefully."

About 70 opposition candidates have been allowed on the ballot for 110 seats, far more than in previous elections. The opposition was shut out of parliament in the 2004 poll.

But activists complain that they have been denied access to commissions overseeing the count at polling stations. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is dispatching hundreds of observers, says a dull campaign has failed to give voters a clear idea of issues or candidates.

Lukashenka expressed impatience with the demands of Western countries, saying authorities had bent over backwards to stage an election that would win their approval.

"If even this time the election turns out to be undemocratic, we will cease all discussions with them," he said.

Western Recognition

The opposition has enjoyed backing in the West. But some activists say they have already felt a reduction of influence and funding with the prospect that this poll will be recognized by Western countries.

"Our worry is that a deal of some sort will be concluded behind our backs," said Vintsuk Vyachorka, a leader of the nationalist Popular Front. "There is a real chance that the West will recognize the election. Some Western politicians are tired of the situation here and want it resolved in some way."

Lukashenka remains barred from the United States and EU over allegations he rigged his reelection in 2006, a result that sparked protests that were broken up by police.

He has sought to improve ties with Washington and the EU after quarrelling with traditional ally Russia last year over energy prices. Belarusian courts last month released the last detainees deemed by the West to be political prisoners.

The president has said for months that he hopes opposition candidates win a few seats to blunt Western criticism. But he suggested his opponents, often divided and with very little support outside the capital, might not muster enough votes.

Syarhey Kalyakin, leader of an opposition Belarusian Party of Communists, said the opposition could win 20 to 30 districts in a fair poll.

"Opposition candidates will have to score real victories, preferably with big margins, in their constituencies," he said. "Just how many of these winners will actually get into parliament is a question to be put to the authorities."