Prague, 14 October 2004 (RFE/RL -- Belarusians go to the polls on Sunday to cast ballots on two key issues, but few observers believe their votes will amount to all that much.
A referendum to change the country's constitution to allow President Lukashenka to run for a third term is widely seen as more significant than elections to his rubber-stamp parliament, the National Assembly.
If the referendum passes, Lukashenka will be able to run for a third term in 2006 -- and preserve his autocratic rule for years to come.
Some observers fear the actual votes might not matter.
However, Vladimir Dorokhov, deputy director of the Minsk-based Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies, said recent polls indicate there might not be sufficient support for the referendum to pass.
"Recent sociological surveys show that a little bit more than 40 percent -- 44 percent -- are ready to support Lukashenka's initiative in the referendum and make changes in the constitution," Dorokhov said. "Fewer voters, some 33-34 percent, are against changing the constitution."
For the referendum to be valid, more than half of all registered voters in the country must support it. As polls suggest that some 75 percent of all voters in Belarus are likely to participate in the referendum, about 67 percent of them would have to side with Lukashenka for it to pass.
But some observers fear the actual votes might not matter.
Valeriy Karbalevych is an analyst with the Strategic Center, an independent Minsk-based political think tank. He said Lukashenka clearly understands what is at stake and will do everything to remain in power, including falsifying the results.
"[When Westerners speak] about falsifications, they imply that some machinations may occur while counting the votes," Karbalevych said. "I think that in our case there will be no serious counting at all. Simply, the head of the Electoral Commission will announce the figure agreed with the presidential administration."
Opposition parties fear that pro-government forces will secure all 110 seats in the parliament, where the opposition currently holds just four seats.
Besides being hindered by the current political system, the 17 opposition parties also lack access to the mass media. Since plans for the referendum were announced, Belarus authorities have closed at least 10 independent newspapers and the opposition receives no positive coverage on state television.
Authorities have refused to authorize between one-half and two-thirds of parliamentary candidates presented by the opposition's main parties, including the United Civil Party and Belarusian Popular Front.
As for Lukashenka, Karbalevych said the president's support comes not from political parties but from candidates nominated by working collectives. He said the collectives only nominate Lukashenka's supporters because they are fully controlled by authorities.
"The main concern is that a person should be obedient to the authorities," Karbalevych said. "He might be a schoolmaster, he might be a doctor. The majority of them are people working in the public sphere. A candidate might be deputy director [of a factory], or a policeman. A candidate shouldn't be a public official but he should be obedient."
Karbalevych said such a system functions well when the personal destiny of any official depends on his loyalty to Lukashenka. He said the president has told local leaders that their personal life might be affected if the opposition wins.
"There is a candidate supported by the authorities in every voting district and this candidate should win and should do everything to be successful," Karbalevych said. "Local authorities were told very clearly what to do. During the latest conference Lukashenka said: 'Look, your personal destiny will depend on the results of the elections.'"
Western institutions have described the election process as farcical. They include the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Helsinki Group human rights organization, and the U.S. Congress.
On 5 October, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Belarus Democracy Act, which is designed to fund activities to improve democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Belarus. It was later passed by the U.S. Senate and now awaits approval by U.S. President George W. Bush.
Lukashenka this week accused Western politicians of going "completely insane." He said their criticism only strengthens him: "It is an example of stupid pressure on our country. Belarusian authorities could not receive a better gift than this. If you [the West] reproach me for looking for enemies inside and outside the country, why do you present yourselves as an enemy outside our country? Why do you give us these opportunities?"
The Belarus Democracy Act also would place economic sanctions on Belarus and bar top officials and their immediate relations from entering the United States.