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Belarusians Go To the Polls In Parliamentary Vote

Voting in Minsk

Voting in Minsk

Voters have gone to the polls in Belarus, where more than 260 candidates, including some 70 from the opposition, have been cleared to compete for the 110 seats in the Chamber of Representatives.

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has insisted that the elections will be democratic, with the aim to achieve better relations with the West.

"If the election goes smoothly, the West is ready to recognize Belarus and see it through less hostile eyes," he said after casting his ballot. "I'm telling you in their own words. As for recognition or nonrecognition of the elections, I think it would be hard for any of you or foreign observers not to recognize these elections, but if they won't recognize them, it's also a result. But I have already repeated many times that we hold elections for our people and for our country."

The opposition does not agree. United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka has said Lukashenka's tactics are clear.

"We will never recognize this election campaign as fair or legitimate," he told RFE/RL's Belarus Service last week. "Only 0.05 percent of members of vote-counting commissions represent alternative candidates, so you can say with certainty that there will be no election. Instead there will be the usual falsification and the appointment of deputies."

He told Reuters that Lukashenka "is trying to blackmail Russia and Europe. He will tell Russia: 'give me good gas prices or I will walk away to Europe,' and he will tell Europe: 'deal with me, lift the barriers, give me investments, open new markets to us or Russia will come here and the Poles and Lithuanians will face the Russian bear at their doorsteps.'"

"Of course the Central Election Commission and officials in polling stations are now nicer, they do not seek confrontation," opposition leader Alyaksandr Kazulin told Reuters after voting. "But this is all superficial, it does not change the basic problems."

The leader of opposition Belarusian Party of Communists, Syarhey Kalyakin, said his party's election monitors had failed to record any major violations during the voting.

But Kalyakin said advance voting, which began on September 23 and was encouraged and tightly controlled by the authorities, gave the government an opportunity to cheat because the voting was not monitored as closely as on election day.

The government has rejected the accusations. Officials put the advance turnout at 26 percent.

The opposition also says some 30 percent of its candidates were denied registration, primarily because of formal and technical errors in their applications.

For his part, Lukashenka has said Belarus needs a "constructive opposition that exists for its political activity [not because of Western support] and lives the same way as the people do -- otherwise people will not elect them. We need such opposition in society, but no one is going to create an artificial opposition in Belarus."

Voters' attitudes differ. A man from Horadnia says he wants more freedom but in fact cares very little about the country's future.

"There's not enough freedom," he says. "I don't know is something will change or not if they will elect somebody or not. I already do not care about the future of our country. It's better to leave this place and not wait until something changes here."

An old woman from the nearby village of Putryshki has more specific desires. "We want an easier life in the village, bigger pensions," she says. "We want young people to have houses to live in."

International Verdict

The verdict of European monitors, hundreds of whom have arrived in Belarus, is likely to matter more than the actual outcome of the 12-hour voting.
President Lukashenka expects international recognition.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said last week the elections were freer than previous races but complained that it had received no assurances it could see the count.

However, senior OSCE observer Anne–Marie Lizin said Belarusian authorities "are putting in a lot of effort" to have the elections accepted more positively in the West.

Lukashenka has said several times he wants better ties with the West. But it was Russia's war against Georgia last month that has given him a chance.

In a snub to Moscow, Lukashenka has rejected the Kremlin's pressure to recognize Georgia's breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The elections now will show if Lukashenka's intentions are sincere.

Voting was to continue until 8 p.m. local time. Central Election Commission Chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna said that by 2 p.m., average turnout was above 50 percent, Reuters reported.