MINSK, Belarus (AP) – Belarus is holding a parliamentary election but with top opposition candidates kept off the ballot, only loyalists to the nationâ€™s authoritarian president will win in what observers see as a dress rehearsal for next yearâ€™s similarly skewered presidential vote.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled the ex-Soviet nation of 10 million with an iron hand for a quarter century, showing little tolerance for dissent or free media and extending his rule through elections that the West has described as neither free nor fair.
In Sundayâ€™s election, 516 candidates are contesting 110 parliament seats but opposition candidates were not allowed to run for various reasons, including â€œunfounded criticism of the government.â€
â€œWe are seeing that there is no election as such and the government itself decides who should be a parliament member,â€ said Valery Ukhnalev, a candidate of the left-wing Fair World opposition party.
The current parliament has just two opposition members, and election officials have refused to let them run again, citing technical reasons.
â€œThe authorities donâ€™t need the opposition even for decorum, because the trust in the incumbent leader is fading,â€ said one of them, Alena Anisim.
About a quarter of the nationâ€™s voters have already cast their ballots in early voting, a process that began Monday and is seen by the opposition as fraught with abuse. Ballot boxes stand unguarded during the early voting process and vote count is done without observers being present.
Election officials have denied opposition claims of voting violations even when presented with concrete evidence of fraud.
An independent observer filmed a woman who tried to stuff a pile of ballots into a ballot box during early voting at a polling station in Brest, a city on the border with Poland. But Election Commission chief Lydia Yermoshina, who has held the job for 23 years, responded by saying the observer who made the video should be stripped of his accreditation.
â€œIt doesnâ€™t matter what an observer says,â€ she said. â€œThe most important thing is the ballot box. The truth is determined by the vote count.â€
The campaign has proceeded without rallies, television debates or even street advertising.
â€œThe election campaign has been largely invisible,â€ said Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent political expert. â€œIt has followed a rigid scenario, with the most active and vocal government foes being excluded.â€
He said Lukashenko sees the parliamentary vote as practice for next year, when he will seek a sixth five-year term.
â€œThe Belarusian leader is already thinking about the next yearâ€™s presidential election,â€ Klaskovsky said. â€œAnd so they practice the â€˜no frillsâ€™ scenario.â€
Lukashenko himself described his vision of a new parliament at a recent meeting, saying that about one-third of current members should be re-elected.
â€œStability is the most important thing, and people who come to parliament should be responsible and normal and focus on development, not destruction,â€ the Belarusian leader said.
The U.S. and the European Union have continuously criticized Belarusian authorities for flawed elections and their crackdown on the opposition, introducing sanctions against Lukashenko’s government. However, some of those penalties have been lifted in recent years as Belarus freed political prisoners as part of Lukashenkoâ€™s efforts to reach out to the West during tense times with Russia, Belarusâ€™ main sponsor and ally.
Moscow has recently introduced higher prices for its oil supplies, dealing a heavy blow to Belarus, which has profited from the export of oil products made from cheap Russian crude. Lukashenko has criticized the price hike as part of the Kremlinâ€™s efforts to coerce Belarus into a closer alliance.
Belarus has refused to recognize Russiaâ€™s 2014 annexation of Crimea and provided a platform for the Ukraine peace talks, which aim to resolve fighting in eastern Ukraine between government troops and Russia-backed separatists.
â€œLukashenko has figured out that he could sell â€˜stabilityâ€™ and the West is ready to close their eyes on some things,â€ said Valery Karbalevich, an independent Minsk-based analyst.