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Belarus: Election Officials Say Voters Back Lukashenka

Counting the votes Prague, 18 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The election commission in Belarus says voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum allowing President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to run for a third term and stacked parliament with pro-government candidates.

Central Election Commission Chairwoman Lidiya Ermoshina announced that 89 percent of those registered to vote had gone to the polls. She said a preliminary ballot count shows that 77 percent of registered voters approved amending the constitution to enable Lukashenka to run for a third term in 2006.

"And so, the referendum has taken place, and the people of the Republic of Belarus, by the required constitutional majority, voted to amend Article 81 of the constitution of the Republic of Belarus," Ermoshina said.

It was, she said, "an elegant victory."

Lukashenka said today that he is "pleased" with the results.

However, an exit poll conducted by the independent Gallup Institute concluded that only 48 percent of those voting favored the referendum. For the referendum to be valid, more than half of all registered voters in the country must support it.
"It is said that there were elections. It's not true. There were no elections -- it was a total falsification." -- Stanislav Shushkevich

Gallup based its poll on a sampling of almost 38,000 respondents. It says the margin of error is 1 percentage point.

In a press conference today, Ermoshina dismissed the Gallup findings.

"I don't know whether it was the [Gallup] Institute or a self-proclaimed group of people. Who invited them here? Who gave them accreditation? Who checked the reliability of their sources and questionnaires? Who did they question?" Ermoshina said.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) deployed 300 monitors to observe the voting and ballot count. An OSCE statement today said the elections "fell significantly short of OSCE commitments for democratic elections." The OSCE had already denounced the government's control over the media during the pre-election period.

Opposition leaders also condemned the vote, saying it was marred by large-scale fraud.

The chairman of the executive committee of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Vladimir Rushailo, headed a group of CIS election observers. Rushailo defended the election process in a press conference today.

"The CIS observers believe it is important to note that the referendum was held under unprecedented pressure from the outside. We consider the unfounded harsh statements, biased commentaries, and negative assessments made by individual officials and structures from a number of European organizations and the United States about the referendum in Belarus as an intent on their part to predetermine a negative attitude by the world community and international observers toward the outcome of the referendum in the republic of Belarus before it was held," Rushailo said.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, Stanislav Shushkevich, a former Belarusian leader in the early 1990s and a supporter of free-market reforms, criticized the elections as fraudulent.

"It is said that there were elections. It's not true. There were no elections -- it was a total falsification. [The final result] was well-prepared. And what I think is most regrettable is that Russia, the CIS, etc., will confirm that everything was wonderful," Shushkevich said.

The Belarusian Constitution, adopted in 1994, established the office of president, declared the country a democracy and limited the president to two five-year terms. In an election that followed, voters chose former collective farm manager Lukashenka as president.

Since then, Lukashenka has steadily tightened control over the country. The government owns all local television and radio stations. It has closed newspapers critical of the Lukashenka regime.

In the weeks before the vote, authorities closed nine independent newspapers and barred about 40 percent of declared opposition candidates from running for the legislature due to a variety of charges.

Independent journalists also suffered various forms of harassment during the election period. In the most serious, Pavel Sheremet of Russia's Channel One television was beaten on 17 October and hospitalized with a concussion and other injuries. Police have charged him with hooliganism.

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'Leaving No Stone Unturned' In Belarus's Polls

Belarusian President Slams U.S. Belarus Democracy Act

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