Belarusians have voted in parliamentary elections that are expected to keep in power allies of strongman President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has ruled the former Soviet Union for more than two decades.
Turnout in the September 11 ballot was reported at 74.32 percent, according to the Central Election Commission. A total of 521 candidates are competing for 110 seats in the lower house of parliament.
Commission Chairwoman Lidia Yermoshina told journalists in Minsk on September 11 that the elections had been certified valid in all 110 constituencies.
Some 176 candidates represented the country's fractious opposition: the United Civil Party, Belarusian Popular Front, Green Party, Belarusian Left Party, and the Social Democrats.
The Central Election Commission announced on September 12 that two opposition candidates had won seats, the first time the opposition will be represented in parliament in 20 years.
Hanna Kanapatskaya of the United Civil Party won a mandate, as did independent candidate Alena Anisim, who has links to the opposition.
Belarus hasn't held a vote assessed as free or democratic since the early 1990s, and authorities routinely punish dissent and keep a tight lid on media in the post-Soviet country of around 10 million people.
The current election was monitored by some 400 observers sent by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE is expected to hold a press conference in Minsk on September 12 to discuss its preliminary findings.
Opposition candidates have already said that the electoral process was unfair and would be marred by violations.
"I am convinced that not a single opposition candidate will make it through to parliament," Alyaksei Yanukevich, chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front opposition party, told AFP.
"There will only be lawmakers approved by the authorities,’ Yanukevich said.
Suspect Electoral Counting
The regime's sustained suppression of dissent -- punctuated by arrests of Lukashenka rivals or activists -- has left the opposition weakened and marginalized.
The Vyasna human rights organization pointed to many cases of people being forced to take part in early voting.Some 31 percent of the electorate cast their ballots early, according to authorities.
Another monitoring group, the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections, has accused officials of rigging turnout figures in constituencies where early voting is taking place.
The group said that its observers at polling station No. 103 in the capital, Minsk, registered 19 voters casting ballots on September 6, while election officials put the tally at 56.
The same day, observers counted nine people voting at another Minsk polling station, while the officials insisted 105 people voted there, the monitoring group said
The group said it deployed more than 300 observers to 153 polling stations.
The last time Belarus held national legislative elections, in 2012, the OSCE expressed "serious concerns" at the process and called the vote "not competitive from the start."
Dzyanis Sadowski, a coordinator for Prava Vybaru -- an umbrella group for eight opposition groups with the aim of monitoring elections -- was quoted by Belapan news agency as saying that campaigning was hardly noticeable to ordinary citizens.
Aside from pro-government candidates' domination of state-run publications and TV channels, Sadowski claimed some opposition and independent candidates were the victims of dirty tricks by pro-Lukashenka media outlets.
Opposition leader Mikalay Statkevich -- a candidate for president in the disputed 2010 vote that sparked protests who has served jail terms for his activism -- has called on his supporters to stage protest demonstrations on September 12, when the election results are expected to be announced.
Some 600 people were arrested when police forcibly dispersed mass protests after the presidential election in December 2010.
In July 2011, hundreds of protesters were beaten and many detained after a month of antigovernment demonstrations across the country.
Those crackdowns sparked international criticism and deepened the regime’s diplomatic isolation.
Lukashenka has sought in recent years to reopen even limited relations with the West, pardoning some jailed opposition leaders and hosting Ukraine peace talks.
The European Union this year has lifted nearly all its sanctions imposed on Belarus over human rights violations.
While wooing the West, Lukashenka has kept close ties with Russia, which has enormous leverage over Belarus’s economy and via media.
Asked about the restoration of ambassador-level relations between the United States and Belarus, Lukashenka, who cast his ballot together with his son Kolya, told RFE/RL that Minsk and Washington had agreed on the return of a U.S. ambassador to Belarus “in principle,” after the U.S. presidential election in November.
Belarus has not had a U.S. ambassador since 2008, when Minsk recalled its ambassador in Washington and insisted the U.S. ambassador leave Minsk.
A larger-than-normal number of women are also running for seats in the September 11 elections, something that Lukashenka tepidly endorsed. But in comments to reporters, he also appeared to reject the notion of a woman becoming president or head of state-- in Belarus, the United States, or elsewhere.
"Our society is not ready to elect a woman to assume the duties of president. If we needed a president for decoration only, as a person who would just receive and accompany [the visiting heads of state], then yes -- we would find a beauty, a woman whom we would support and elect as president," Lukashenka said.