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Despite some signs of democratization, Belarus's parliamentary elections on September 28 look like they will mirror earlier flawed elections, with many opposition candidates denied registration and little opposition representation on election commissions.

There had been signs that this year's ballot could be different from previous elections under hard-line President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, which have been marked by barred candidates, biased media, and allegations of vote rigging.

This year, the Central Election Commission has registered 269 candidates, including 71 from the opposition. And in an apparent sign of goodwill, the commission allowed the opposition to be significantly represented on the 110 district election commissions.

However, as in the two previous elections, the authorities almost totally barred the opposition from some 6,500 local commissions, which are directly responsible for counting the vote.

For the opposition, this means that essentially nothing has changed compared to the earlier electoral practices of the regime.

Rubberstamp Parliament

The Belarusian opposition boycotted the 2000 and 2004 legislative polls, and one of the main arguments in favor of the boycotts was that the 110-seat Chamber of Representative possesses no meaningful powers in the political system.

For the past 10 years, the parliament has showed no notable political initiative and obediently rubberstamped bills drafted within the presidential administration.

United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka, who is running in these elections, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service last week that the opposition won't recognize this election campaign as fair or legitimate.

"Only 0.05 percent of members of commissions counting votes 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," Lyabedzka said.

Critics say the parliament only serves to rubberstamp the president's bills
The opposition also argues that some 30 percent of its candidates were denied registration primarily because of formal and technical errors in their applications. And the opposition points out that in as many as 15 election districts the authorities registered just one pro-government candidate, without providing any alternative for voters.

In August and early September, the United Democratic Forces -- a coordination body of several opposition parties -- was set to boycott the polls. But the opposition changed its mind in mid-September, reportedly under pressure from registered candidates who wanted to continue their bids and threatened rebellion, as well as under persuasion from its Western partners.

Many Western politicians and diplomats have suggested that it would be better for the Belarusian opposition to stay in the election game until the end, even if for the sole purpose of exposing the extent of vote rigging.

Recognition Question

Since the apparent change of the West's stance regarding the polls and the role of the Belarusian opposition in them took place following the Russia-Georgia conflict, some Belarusian commentators were quick to conclude that the West is deeply interested in recognizing the September 28 ballot as more or less democratic.

According to this hypothesis, the West wants to reward Lukashenka for his reluctance to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and North Ossetia by unfreezing relations with him. But there is one firm precondition -- the conduct of the elections must be acceptable for both the OSCE monitoring mission and the Belarusian opposition. Some even assert that there is a secret deal between Lukashenka and the West, under which several handpicked opposition candidates will be given seats in the Chamber of Representatives.

However, Lyabedzka says that such a scheme won't work.

"For us, it is an unacceptable outcome even if out of 110 deputies appointed by Lukashenka, there will be three or four deputies appointed from the united opposition list. What we need is an election by the people, not appointments by Lukashenka," Lyabedzka said.

OSCE Monitors

The opposition is planning a rally in Minsk on September 28, after the closure of polling stations, in order to express its protest against what it sees as an unfair election process.

Much could depend on whether OSCE monitors will be allowed to directly watch over the vote count. The body was denied such opportunities in previous Belarusian polls organized by Lukashenka.

Early voting has already started in some parts of Belarus
Gert Arens, head of the election observation mission of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Belarus, earlier this week said, "The meaningful access to the vote count is of [primary] importance for the observation mission.... Now we will have to wait and see what happens on the election day."

If the authorities take a risk of letting OSCE observers into the rooms where local election commissions sort out ballots and tally them up, there is a chance that an otherwise uneventful and predictable election campaign can get a more favorable international assessment.

Threat Against West

Last week, President Lukashenka threatened to end "all discussions" with the West if Western monitors fail to recognize the September 28 parliamentary elections in Belarus as fair and democratic.

Lukashenka has already been disappointed twice by the West in this regard, when the missions of OSCE observers concluded that both the 2000 and 2004 legislative polls in Belarus were significantly below democratic standards.

"If even this time our election turns out to be undemocratic again -- in quotation marks -- and someone in the West doesn't like it, we will cease all discussions with them," Lukashenka said.

"I gave an interview to [the Western media] recently and I said we're not simply conducting this election in Belarus according to the constitution, but we are actually breaking a whole series of our own laws and conducting an election the way it is understood by the OSCE and Western observers."

After the 2006 presidential ballot Lukashenka famously claimed that, to meet expectations of Western observers and politicians halfway, he falsified the election results in favor of two opposition candidates at his own expense. And he scolded the West for not appreciating that move.
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