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Analysis: 'Leaving No Stone Unturned' In Belarus's Polls

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said at a government conference on 6 October that the authorities should win not only the presidential referendum on 17 October but also should fill all 110 seats in the Chamber of Representatives in the first round of the legislative elections that will be held the same day. "We should show who is the master of the house," Lukashenka said. "We should leave no stone unturned [in crushing] the domestic and external opposition.... One should be able to stay in power and defend it. This is Grandpa Lenin's saying, not mine. We have enough power and techniques to win these elections and referendum overwhelmingly."

Winning the referendum for Lukashenka means obtaining the right to run for the presidency in 2006 and thus, as his opponents assert, paving the way for his indefinite rule in Belarus. Filling all the seats in the Chamber of Representatives in the first round actually means packing the lower house with submissive and toothless deputies by way of administrative support and/or vote "adjustments." The opposition, which was pushed out of "systemic politics" in Belarus by Lukashenka in 1996, seems to have no chance to win even a single seat in the Chamber of Representatives. An opposition rally in Minsk on 10 October, which was organized to call on the electorate to refrain from early voting, gathered only an estimated 300 people, that is, almost exclusively opposition leaders, opposition parliamentary candidates, and some activists of their election staffs. Ordinary voters remained totally uninterested.

Belarusian opposition activists read Lukashenka's call on the government to win the 17 October elections and presidential referendum by a landslide as a veiled order to falsify the polls. Belarusian Popular Front leader Vintsuk Vyachorka said the government is rumored to be planning to make 60 percent of the voters cast their ballots before polling day. The early voting, which began on 12 October, is widely deemed to be the best opportunity for the authorities to fix the ballot. "Our people account for less than 1 percent of election-commission members," United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka added. "These can hardly be called election commissions, they are rather 'falsification' commissions." According to Lyabedzka, election commissions have been ordered to ensure an 80 percent turnout and a 75 percent vote in favor of the referendum proposal to lift the constitutional two-term limit on the presidency.

Apart from instructing the government to work toward completing the parliamentary election in the first round, Lukashenka also decided on the balance of sexes in the future Belarusian legislature. In his annual address to the National Assembly in April, Lukashenka determined and validated the quota for women in the deputy corps. "Women should constitute no less than 30-40 percent [of the deputy corps]," he said. "Woman always emit kindness. So the remaining guys will work well.... I will request that the local authorities support all these processes and that the men who find themselves in the same constituency with women give up.... I'll be glad if women constitute 40 percent of our future parliament."

Some "guys" who did not work "well" in the outgoing Chamber of Representatives were simply denied registration as candidates for the 17 October election. In particular, such elimination was applied to deputies Uladzimir Parfyanovich and Syarhey Skrabets, who jointly with deputy Valery Fralou went on a 19-day hunger strike in June, demanding liberalizing changes to the country's Election Code. Uladzimir Hancharyk, a challenger to Lukashenka in the 2001 presidential election, was also rejected.

In general, registration was a tortuous process for many more candidates. Out of the 692 people seeking registration, district election commissions registered 359. The most common official reasons for denying registration were incorrectly filled-out income and property declarations by candidates or irregularities in the signature lists of citizens supporting candidates. The Central Election Commission subsequently sustained 40 out of the 164 complaints from people who were rejected by district election commissions. But in some cases the commission was adamant, supporting registration denials according to a graphologist's conclusion that there were falsified signatures on candidates' support lists. Some rejected candidates later submitted written statements from their voters swearing that their signatures on support lists are authentic, but to no avail. Graphology seems to be a promising vocation in Belarus under Lukashenka.
Some opposition candidates who criticized the government in their campaign broadcasts were subsequently removed from the ballot on charges of defaming state officials.

Conducting the election campaign has proven to be tricky for opposition candidates as well. For example, police on 1 October searched without a warrant the campaign office of two opposition parliamentary candidates in Minsk, Valyantsina Palevikova and Alyaksandr Dabravolski, and confiscated all 15,000 election campaign leaflets printed legally by United Civic Party deputy head Dabravolski with money provided by the Central Election Commission. Palevikova was luckier, because the police seized only a portion of her leaflets. RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported many cases of detention by police of opposition candidates and their supporters campaigning in the streets, just with the sole purpose of intimidation.

Under Belarus's election legislation, all candidates are entitled to air five-minute, free-of-charge campaign programs on state-run television and radio channels. The opposition hoped that it would be able to use this opportunity to call on voters to say "no" to Lukashenka in the referendum. However, state censors either blocked such prerecorded election broadcasts from being aired at all or cut passages referring to the referendum from them. Some opposition candidates who criticized the government in their campaign broadcasts were subsequently removed from the ballot on charges of defaming state officials.

In short, there is no chance for the Belarusian opposition to score any significant success in the 17 October polls or efficiently monitor the vote counting. The Belarusian authorities do not allow election monitors to be present in the rooms where the ballots are counted after the closure of polling stations. There is also an official veil of secrecy over the lists of eligible voters in the country as a whole and in every single constituency in particular.

What the opposition is proposing to voters in order to prevent the potential rigging of the vote in the presidential referendum is to ruin the referendum ballot by tearing it in two, put one part in the ballot box and take the other -- with the signatures of a relevant polling-station commission -- outside the polling station and subsequently pass it to opposition candidates for a "parallel vote count." Not a bad idea in theory, but it was voiced only this past week, so there is slim chance that it may be communicated to all voters who do not want Lukashenka to rule the country beyond 2006.