Authoritarian Belarus votes amid boycott call
Strongman Alexander Lukashenko was set to keep his forces in power Sunday as ex-Soviet Belarus elected a parliament in polls a united opposition refused to recognise even before the first ballot was counted.
With the man branded as Europe's last dictator keen to show off his democratic credentials and avoid a re-run should turnout dip below 50 percent, a barrage of state TV spots urged citizens to cast their ballots.
But polling stations were so empty that even the head of the Central Election Committee called the turnout quite "weak", confirming the lack of interest in a process in which most candidates already work for the state.
Some people casting ballots in one of the schools in Minsk said they despise the pre-determined polls and want only to take advantage of the customary cheap buffet.
"Lukashenko's regime is a Soviet regime, there are no elections," said Oleg, a retired history professor who brought along four friends. "We never vote, but we come to have a drink at the polling station."
By mid-afternoon, turnout in most Belarus regions was above the 50 percent required to avoid a repeat election. More than a quarter of the people had opted to vote under an early voting system in place since Tuesday.
Lukashenko, who arrived at his polling station with his young out-of-wedlock little son Kolya sporting a tailored suit, praised the "calmness" of the polls: "There is nothing to criticise so far," he told journalists.
"They should envy our boring elections. We don't need any revolutions or upheavals," the 18-year veteran president said.
Nearly two years after unleashing a crackdown on demonstrators who dared question the scale of his election to a fourth term, Lukashenko hardly faces a challenge from his scattered and weakened foes.
Most opposition groups called for a boycott and pulled their candidates out of the race a week ago.
But the authorities still appeared to be taking no chances. About a dozen protesters have been arrested in the past week and thousands of flyers calling for a boycott were confiscated.
At a press conference Sunday, opposition leaders proclaimed the election unfair, lacking in transparency and undemocratic.
"Belarus authorities did not take the opportunity for democratic reform, did not change the electoral laws, did not free political prisoners, did not let the opposition into voting committees, used force against the opposition, and censored candidates," said Belarus National Front party leader Alexei Yanukevich.
"This gives us the right not to recognise the results of the vote now, regardless of the outcome," a statement signed by five anti-Lukashenko groups said.
Government forces swept the last legislative polls in 2008, a scenario almost certain to play itself out again.
The outgoing parliament, which spent the term rubber-stamping legislation almost exclusively issued by the president's office, drafted and passed only four largely inconsequential bills of its own.
This political stagnation and erosion of the country's economy in 2011 has prompted Lukashenko's popularity to slip to less than 30 percent this summer from the 53 percent he enjoyed going into his last election in December 2010.
Facing economic sanctions and a travel ban from the West over rights abuses, Lukashenko's regime has moved even closer to its historic ally Russia, resisting calls for economic and electoral reforms.
Sixteen people held in jail since 2010 and recognised by local groups as political prisoners include one of the presidential rivals of the man whom supporters tenderly call "Batka," or Dad.
Reflecting their dismal morale, the opposition says it will not call for street protests Sunday because of general apathy.