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Belarus: Referendum Vote Starts

Prague, 11 November 1996 (RFE/RL) - Voting in a controversial constitutional referendum got under way two days ago in Belarus, although the official date for the balloting is much later. The electoral law provides for the opening of polling stations two weeks earlier to allow people to vote, in case they may be unable to do so on the scheduled day. But the practice makes it more difficult to ensure secrecy of the vote.

The referendum asks seven questions, four of which were presented by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and three by the Parliament.

Lukashenka wants the electorate to approve constitutional changes to extend his term of office to seven years. He is currently in the third year of a five-year mandate and wants a new term added through the referendum, but without a new election. And, he also seeks to strengthen his control over both the legislative and judiciary branches of government.

The president also wants to move the current National Day from July 27 -- the date of declaration of Belarus' independence from the Soviet Union -- to July 3, to mark the entry of the Soviet Army into Minsk at the end of World War II.

Other questions concern the maintenance of death penalty -- Lukashenka wants it -- and free purchase and sale of land -- Lukashenka is against.

The Parliament asks the voters to scrap the presidency and support a parliamentary system of government. It also wants to expand its control over the budget, and asks for a formal approval of a rule imposing popular elections of local officials.

The referendum was initially proposed by Lukashenka as a way to increase his power. The Parliament, which is the only agency empowered to call referendums, countered by calling for the presidency to be abolished.

Last week, the Constitutional Court entered the fray by ruling that the referendum could take place but its results could only be "advisory," because the power to change the Constitution is vested in the Parliament alone. Also last week, the Parliament voted that the referendum would not be legally binding.

Within days after that vote, Lukashenka issued a decree overruling both the Court action and the Parliamentary vote. In the decree, the President said that the Court and the Parliament had acted to deny citizens the right to change laws and made his two main questions -- the one on constitutional change and the one on the National Day -- legally binding, with the other two merely advisory.

Lukashenka's decree failed to mention the questions proposed by Parliament. But the President said that he was prepared to dissolve both the Court and Parliament if they continued to oppose him.

There has been no reaction yet from Parliament. The assembly is on a temporary recess until tomorrow. But its reaction is predictable. Vasily Novikov, Parliament's First Deputy Chairman, told a Western reporter (Reuters) last week that Lukashenka's decree represented "a primitive decision." He also said that the deputies will not be intimidated by the President's moves.

Speaking two days ago on television, Lukashenka said that he was "scared to think what the opposition could do," if he lost the referendum. He went on to add that "they would unleash carnage and dismiss me from power."

During the last two years, Lukashenka has systematically been suppressing his opponents. He has muzzled the media, suspended labor unions, arrested opposition activists and used force to contain public protest demonstrations. He has said that all those actions were undertaken in the defense of democracy.

Lukashenka has long enjoyed considerable popularity in the countryside. He is a former manager of a collective farm. He is distrusted by city residence. But Belarus is a rural country. And Lukashenka is certainly counting on that.

Western news agencies have reported that early turnout was minimal in the balloting that began two days ago. One polling station said only two people had cast their ballots. But reporters have also noted some irregularities: one foreign citizen was handed a ballot paper. A Belarusian voter was registered twice.