Elections in Belarus Belarusians vote despite opposition calls for a.com2F242Fe12F4be6fce686a260bd2a01f0f21dff2F2691436791994261a9bdb85d85056508

Elections in Belarus: Belarusians vote despite opposition calls for a boycott

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Voting opened Sunday in Belarus's tightly controlled parliamentary and local elections designed to cement the iron rule of the country's authoritarian leader, despite calls for a boycott from the opposition, which dismissed the vote as a “pointless” farce .”

President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron hand for nearly three decades and announced on Sunday that he will run for president again next year, accused the West of using the vote to undermine his government and the nation “destabilize”. of 9.5 million people.

Most candidates belong to the four officially registered parties: Belaya Rus, the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Party of Labor and Justice. These parties all support Lukashenko's policies. About a dozen other parties were denied registration last year.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is in exile in neighboring Lithuania after challenging Lukashenko in the 2020 presidential election, called on voters to boycott the polls.

“There are no people on the ballot who would propose real changes because the regime has only approved puppets that suit it,” Tsikhanouskaya said in a video statement. “We call for a boycott of this senseless farce and to ignore this election without an election.”

Sunday's vote is the first election in Belarus since the controversial vote in 2020 that gave Lukashenko his sixth term in office and sparked an unprecedented wave of mass demonstrations.

Protests raged across the country for months, bringing hundreds of thousands onto the streets. More than 35,000 people were arrested. Thousands were beaten in police custody and hundreds of independent media and non-governmental organizations were closed and banned.

To survive the protests, Lukashenko relied on subsidies and political support from his key ally Russia. He allowed Moscow to use Belarusian territory to send troops to Ukraine in February 2022.

The election comes amid a relentless crackdown on dissent. Over 1,400 political prisoners remain behind bars, including leaders of opposition parties and prominent human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, who won the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize.

The opposition says early voting, which began on Tuesday, provided a breeding ground for election manipulation as ballot boxes were left unprotected for five days.

Election officials said Sunday that more than 40% of the country's voters cast ballots during early voting Tuesday through Saturday. According to the Belarusian Central Election Commission, voter turnout was 43.64% as of 9 a.m. on Sunday, an hour after polling stations officially opened.

The Viasna human rights center said students, soldiers, teachers and other officials were forced to take part in early voting.

“The authorities are using all available means to ensure the desired result – from broadcasting television propaganda to encouraging voters to cast their votes early,” said Viasna representative Pavel Sapelka. “There will be arrests, arrests and searches during the vote.”

During Tuesday's meeting with senior Belarusian law enforcement officials, Lukashenko claimed, without providing evidence, that Western countries are considering plans for a coup in the country or an attempt to seize power by force. He ordered police to increase armed patrols across Belarus, saying that “this is the most important element in ensuring law and order.”

After the vote, Belarus will form a new state body – the 1,200-seat All-Belarusian People's Assembly, which will include senior officials, local lawmakers, union members, pro-government activists and others. It will have broad powers, including the power to consider constitutional amendments and appoint election officials and judges.

A few years ago it was believed that Lukashenko had considered taking over the leadership of the new body after his resignation, but his calculations have apparently changed and he announced on Sunday that he would run in next year's presidential election.

“Tell (the opposition) that I will run. And the more difficult the situation, the more actively they will disrupt our society… the more pressure they put on you, me and society, the more likely I am to run in these elections,” the strongman leader told reporters as he cast his vote According to state media, this is the capital of Belarus.

For the first time, curtains were removed from voting booths at polling stations and voters were banned from taking photographs of their ballots. During the 2020 election, activists encouraged voters to photograph their ballots to prevent authorities from manipulating the vote in Lukashenko's favor.

Belarusian state television broadcast footage of Interior Ministry exercises in which police arrested a suspected perpetrator who photographed his ballot paper and others who formed an artificial queue outside a polling station.

For the first time, Belarus also refused to invite observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to observe the election. Belarus is a member of the OSCE, a leading transatlantic security and human rights group, and its observers have been the only international observers of Belarusian elections for decades.

Since 1995, not a single election in Belarus has been recognized as free and fair by the OSCE.

The OSCE said the decision not to admit the agency's observers deprived the country of a “comprehensive assessment by an international body.”

“The human rights situation in Belarus continues to deteriorate as those who express dissent or advocate for the human rights of others are subject to investigation, persecution and often criminal prosecution,” it said in a statement.

Observers noted that the authorities did not even try to pretend that the vote was democratic.

The election offers the government an opportunity to “run a system test after massive protests and a severe shock from the last presidential election and see if it works,” said Artyom Shraibman, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “Parliament will be sterile after the opposition and all alternative voices have been excluded from the election campaign. It is important for the authorities to erase any memory of the protests.”