Belarus elections: Belarusians vote amid opposition calls for a boycott

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Polling stations opened Sunday in tightly controlled Belarus. Parliamentary and local elections Which is set to consolidate the solid rule of the country's authoritarian leader, despite calls for a boycott from the opposition, which rejected the vote as a “senseless farce.”

president Alexander LukashenkoHe has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for nearly three decades and announced on Sunday that he would run for president again next year, accusing the West of trying to use the vote to undermine his government and “destabilize” the country of 9.5 million people. the people.

Most of the candidates belong to the four officially registered parties: Belarus, the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and the Labor and Justice Party. All of these parties support Lukashenko's policies. About ten 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, urged voters to boycott the election.

“There are no people on the ballot who can deliver real changes because the regime has only allowed its own puppets to participate,” Tsikhanouskaya said in a video statement. “We call for a boycott of this senseless farce, and for this election to be ignored with no other choice.”

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

Protests It swept the country for months, bringing hundreds of thousands into the streets. More than 35 thousand people were arrested. Thousands were beaten in police custody, and hundreds of independent media outlets and NGOs were closed and banned.

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Lukashenko has relied on Subsidies and political support From his main ally, Russia, so that he could survive the protests. Moscow was allowed to use Belarusian territory to send troops to Ukraine in February 2022.

Elections are held in the middle of a Relentless repression On the opposition. More than 1,400 political prisoners remain behind bars, including opposition party leaders and famous human rights defender Ales Bialiatski, who will win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022.

The opposition says early voting, which began on Tuesday, provides fertile ground for vote tampering, with ballot boxes not protected for five days.

Election officials said on Sunday that more than 40% of the country's voters cast ballots during early voting, from Tuesday to Saturday. Turnout was 43.64% by 9 a.m. Sunday, an hour after polls officially opened, according to the Belarusian Central Election Commission.

The Viasna Human Rights Center said students, soldiers, teachers and other civil servants were forced to participate in early voting.

“The authorities are using all available means to ensure the result they need – from broadcasting television propaganda to forcing voters to cast their ballots early,” said Pavel Sabelka, a representative of Viasna. He added, “Arrests, arrests, and searches take place during voting.”

Speaking during a meeting on Tuesday with senior Belarusian law enforcement officials, Lukashenko claimed, without providing evidence, that Western countries were considering plans to stage a coup in the country or attempt to seize power by force. He ordered police to reinforce armed patrols throughout Belarus, declaring that “this is the most important element of ensuring law and order.”

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After the vote, Belarus is set to form a new government body – the 1,200-seat All-Belarus People's Assembly which will include top 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 was considering whether to lead the new body after he stepped down, but his calculations appeared to have changed, and he announced on Sunday that he would run for president in next year's elections.

“Tell (the opposition) that I will run,” he said. The powerful leader told reporters while casting his vote in the elections: “The more difficult the situation becomes, the more actively they will disturb our society… The more pressure is on you, on myself and on society, the sooner I will run for this election.” The Belarusian capital, according to state media.

For the first time, curtains were removed from voting booths at polling stations, and voters were prohibited from taking pictures of their ballot papers. During the 2020 elections, activists encouraged voters to photograph their ballots in an attempt to prevent authorities from manipulating the vote in Lukashenko's favor.

Belarusian state television broadcast footage of an Interior Ministry exercise in which police arrested an alleged violator who was photographing his ballot and others who created an artificial queue outside the polling station.

Belarus for the first time too to reject – Inviting observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor the elections. Belarus is a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a large transatlantic security and rights group, and its observers have been the only international observers of Belarusian elections in decades.

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Since 1995, the OSCE has not recognized any elections in Belarus as free and fair.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the decision not to allow agency monitors deprives the country of a “comprehensive assessment by an international body.”

“The human rights situation in Belarus continues to deteriorate, with those who express opposition or defend the human rights of others often subject to investigation, persecution and prosecution,” she said in a statement.

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

Artyom Shreibman, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said the election provides the government with an opportunity to “test the systems after the massive protests and the serious shock of the recent presidential election and see if they will work.” He added: “Parliament will be sterile after preventing the opposition and all alternative voices from propaganda.” “It is important that the authorities erase any memory of the protests.”

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