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Analysis: Lukashenka Prepares Ground For Life Presidency

Belarus held national elections on 17 October to the 110-seat Chamber of Representatives and a referendum on lifting the constitutional two-term limit on the presidency. The voting actually began five days earlier, on 12 October, as has been the established tradition under President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's 10-year rule. To win a referendum, Lukashenka needed at least 50 percent of Belarus's eligible voters to say "yes" to his desire to stay in power beyond 2006, when his second term ends. The referendum's turnout was therefore of utmost importance.

Voters were lured to polling stations with vodka, beer, sweets, and sausages that they could purchase there at prices that were cut by one-fourth compared to their everyday prices. The Central Election Commission reported early on 18 October that 89.73 percent of Belarusian voters took part in the plebiscite and some 86 percent of them, or 77.3 percent of all eligible voters in the country, voted in favor of Lukashenka's proposal allowing him to run for a third term in 2006. Belarus thus became the only country in Europe to provide its head of state with the right to stay in power virtually for life.

"I consider it an elegant victory," Central Election Commission Chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna commented on the referendum results. "If there had been no referendum, it should have been invented, because it has consolidated the nation as never before and given the young people a lesson in patriotism." "Elegant" is Lukashenka's own word; he used it with respect to his victory in 2001, when OSCE election monitors deemed the process neither fair nor democratic. The 2004 victory was much more "elegant" that in 2001 -- three years ago, Lukashenka was reported to have obtained a mere 75 percent of the vote, which translated into 63 percent of all eligible voters in Belarus.

Hence it is little wonder that Lukashenka professed to be baffled by his level of popular support. "The outcome of the referendum was overwhelming to me," Lukashenka said at an 18 October meeting with a selected group of primarily CIS election monitors who saw nothing wrong with the 17 October polling. "I did not expect such a high turnout and such wide support," Lukashenka added. He was not the only one in Belarus who was surprised by developments.
"I consider it an elegant victory." -- Central Election Commission Chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna

An exit poll held in Belarus by the Gallup Organization/Baltic Surveys during the early voting from 12-16 October among 19,200 voters and on 17 October among 18,400 voters found that just 48.4 percent of all eligible voters in the country said "yes" in the referendum. Therefore, according to Gallup Organization/Baltic Surveys, the referendum did not suffice to amend the Belarusian Constitution or give Lukashenka the right to run for reelection.

Yarmoshyna shrugged off the Gallup findings in the Belarusian polls. "I don't know whether it was the [Gallup] institute or a self-proclaimed group of people," she said on 18 October. "Who invited them here, who gave them accreditation, who checked the reliability of their sources and questionnaires? Whom did they question?" On the other hand, the government employed an obscure pollster to conduct a more favorable exit poll on 17 October -- its results, which approximated the official referendum results, were repeatedly released by state-run Belarusian Television throughout the voting day, something that is forbidden under the Election Code.

Moreover, Belarusian journalist Pavel Sheremet, who helped organize the Gallup survey in the Belarusian referendum, was severely beaten on 17 October, reportedly by a group of students from a police academy in Minsk, and hospitalized with injuries and a concussion. Police subsequently accused Sheremet of hooliganism; thus, after leaving hospital, he will most likely face a stay in jail.

The opposition claimed the 17 October polling was rigged. A nongovernmental organization called Partnership, which fielded 3,500 monitors for the elections and presidential referendum, has registered more than 1,000 alleged violations of the election law by members of election commissions. Partnership head Mikalay Astreyka said the vote count at virtually all polling stations in the country was conducted in the absence of independent monitors.

The conclusion of an OSCE monitoring mission in Belarus, which had some 270 international observers from 38 countries in Belarus on 17 October, was that the parliamentary elections fell "significantly short" of Belarus's OSCE commitments. (The OSCE refused to monitor the Belarusian referendum, even though it was invited to do so by the Belarusian government.) "We were concerned by police raids in campaign offices, the detention of a candidate, campaign workers and domestic observers, as well as numerous reports of coercion on certain groups, particularly students, to vote," OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Vice President Tone Tinsgaard commented. "Not only was the [election] media coverage biased, opposition parties got barely any coverage, while the president and government enjoyed 90 percent of the coverage of election related issues."

Tinsgaard also said that in some 60 percent of the polling stations that were visited by OSCE monitors, the vote count was not transparent and practically uncontrollable. "Numbers were not being announced aloud as they were being established and observers were given only a limited view of the process, and the procedure for the compilation of protocol was not followed," she noted.

The legislative elections were overshadowed by the referendum. On the other hand, few seemed to expect successes for the opposition in that voting. Before the elections, Lukashenka ordered the government to work toward eliminating the opposition from the legislature, filling all 110 seats in the first round, and electing roughly one-third of women to the Chamber of Representatives. His instructions were fulfilled almost to the letter. The Central Election Commission announced that 108 deputies were elected to the lower house, and none are from the opposition. Thirty-one women were elected to the Chamber of Representatives, representing nearly 29 percent of the lower house's current composition.

The Belarusian opposition meanwhile held an unsanctioned rally in Minsk on the evening of 18 October to protest the official results of the referendum. Several thousand people turned up for the protest -- perhaps surprising for an opposition that has been unable to gather more than several hundred people for anti-Lukashenka actions in recent years. Police made few arrests this time, perhaps wary of using brutal force against protesters in the presence of foreign journalists and election monitors in the Belarusian capital.

"People voted for one thing, while the results turned out to be completely different," opposition United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka told journalists on 18 October. "I think the authorities won the vote count but lost several hundred thousand, or even several million, people.... There is a chance of making these people active participants in the political process." Which is, of course, the only way to stop Lukashenka from scoring another "elegant" victory in 2006.

Lukashenka turned 50 this year. An avid hockey player and rollerskater, he is physically fit and looks set for many more "elegant" victories in the future -- regardless of how much their scale might baffle even him.

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