Lawmakers in Belarus have approved the first reading of a bill amending the constitution to introduce a single voting day for all elections, a move that is likely to delay local elections and a referendum promised by authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
The changes, supported by Lukashenka during a speech to parliament last month, were approved on June 25 during the last day of the the legislature's current session.
The Telegram channel of the House of Representatives said the second reading of the bill will be held when parliament reconvenes in the autumn.
Lidzia Yarmoshyna , the head of the Central Election Commission, has said that if the changes are passed, the next municipal elections, which were scheduled for late 2021 or early 2022, will be delayed until 2023.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election.
In turn, that is likely to delay a referendum Lukashenka has pledged to hold on the constitutional amendments. He made the promise amid mass protests after a presidential election last year that opposition leaders and the West say was rigged.
Yarmoshyna has previously floated the idea of holding the referendum in tandem with the municipal vote.
Lukashenka's opponents have expressed doubts about the amendments, calling them a sham exercise to help him to cling to power after the opposition rejected his victory in an August 9 presidential election.
In February, at a Soviet-style "All-Belarusian People's Assembly," Lukashenka, 66, reiterated an idea he started pushing in December that the Belarusian Constitution needed unspecified amendments.
In mid-March, he signed a decree to create of a commission on constitutional amendments which will, by August 1, outline the amendments and present them to Lukashenka.
Opposition and public outrage over what they saw as a rigged vote in the presidential election has sparked continuous protests, bringing tens of thousands onto the streets with demands for Lukashenka to step down and new elections to be held.
Security officials have cracked down hard on the demonstrators, arresting thousands, including dozens of journalists who covered the rallies, and pushing most of the top opposition figures out of the country.
Several protesters have been killed in the violence and some rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture being used by security officials against some of those detained.
Lukashenka, who has run the country since 1994, has denied any wrongdoing with regard to the election and refuses to negotiate with the opposition on stepping down and holding new elections.
The European Union, the United States, Canada, and other countries have refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader of Belarus and have imposed sanctions on him and several senior Belarusian officials in response to the "falsification" of the vote and the postelection crackdown.