Voters in Belarus go to the polls on Sunday (9 September) to elect a president. Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has been in office since 1994 and who has become well-known for his fiery, anti-Western rhetoric and authoritarian style of government, is seeking re-election. Lukashenka's term of office should have expired two years ago, but the Belarusian leader had it extended in a controversial referendum in 1996.
Prague, 7 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- For the first time in seven years, Belarusians will have a chance to vote for a national leader when polls open at 0600 local time on Sunday (9 September).
Incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka faces two challengers: Trade Union Federation Chairman Uladzimir Hancharyk, who is being supported by a broad coalition of opposition groups, and Syarhey Haydukevich, who heads the Liberal Democratic Party, an ultranationalist faction modeled on the Russian party led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
Official campaigning has only been allowed for the past three weeks, giving Lukashenka's rivals little chance to publicize their platforms. Most state television air time continues to be devoted to Lukashenka. Opposition rallies, even during the campaign period, must receive prior government approval, and the candidates have been allotted the equivalent of only $12,000 to spend on the campaign.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and opposition groups have accused the authorities of harassing candidates and non-governmental groups preparing to monitor the election. Lukashenka, in return, has said he will expel the OSCE's Belarus mission chief, Hans-Georg Wieck, and U.S. Ambassador Michael Kozak, once the election is over.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday that the U.S. would not look kindly on such action:
"That would obviously not be a very wise move. Ambassador [Michael] Kozak represents the United States, represents U.S. policy. Our policy is to support the independence, integrity and, we hope, democracy of the new (newly) independent states, the states that used to be part of the Soviet Union."
Boucher said the U.S. has made it clear to the Lukashenka government that Washington is disappointed with Belarus's slow progress toward reforms:
"We've talked very much about our concerns about the situation in Belarus, and we would hope that they would adopt a path of prosperity, peace, and democracy that others have adopted in the region."
Early voting in Belarus's presidential poll began on 4 September of this week for people who will not be able to cast their ballots on Sunday. Hancharyk, Lukashenka's main challenger, charges that this will give the government additional time to rig the election.
Lukashenka dismissed the accusation and also said this week that he does not care if the West fails to recognize the election results.
Parliamentary elections held last October, boycotted by the main opposition parties and which brought victory to government candidates, were deemed undemocratic by the OSCE and Western governments.
Lukashenka has predicted a hands-down win for himself in the presidential vote. The polls are scheduled at close at 2000 Minsk time on 9 September.
If no candidate garners more than 50 percent of the vote, a second round is due to be held two weeks later, on September 23.