Belarus’ Election Reinforces Authoritarian Leader’s Rule Despite Opposition’s Call for a Boycott

The Associated Press
By The Associated Press
February 26, 2024Europe
Belarus’ Election Reinforces Authoritarian Leader’s Rule Despite Opposition’s Call for a Boycott
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko addresses the media after voting at a polling station in Minsk, Belarus, on Feb. 25, 2024. (Belarusian Presidential Press Service via AP)

TALLINN, Estonia—Belarusian authorities on Monday announced preliminary results from parliamentary and local elections in which only candidates loyal to the country’s authoritarian leader were allowed to compete and the opposition called for a boycott.

The vote further cemented the 30-year rule of President Alexander Lukashenko, who declared his intention to seek another five-year term in a presidential election next year.

Most candidates belonged to the four officially registered parties: Belaya Rus, the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Party of Labor and Justice, all of which support Lukashenko’s policies. The Central Election Commission said 73 percent of the country’s 6.9 million eligible voters cast ballots, filling all 110 seats in the national parliament, 51 of which went to Belaya Rus, and 12,514 seats in local councils.

Sunday’s balloting was the first in Belarus since a contentious 2020 vote that handed Mr. Lukashenko his sixth term in office and triggered an unprecedented wave of mass demonstrations that brought hundreds of thousands into the streets. More than 35,000 people were arrested, thousands were beaten in police custody and hundreds of independent media outlets and nongovernmental organizations were shut down and outlawed.

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

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday congratulated Mr. Lukashenko on “the confident victory of patriotic forces of Belarus” that helped ”ensure internal political stability.”

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is in exile in neighboring Lithuania after challenging Mr. Lukashenko in the 2020 presidential election, called for a boycott of the vote, which she dismissed as a “senseless farce.”

In a surprising development in the tightly controlled nation of 9.5 million, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya’s video address was broadcast across Belarus on Saturday after opposition activists managed to gain access to some 2,000 screens used for street advertising. The Viasna Human Rights Center reported Sunday that a number of employees at the company that owns the screens were quickly arrested.

The election took place during a relentless crackdown on dissent. Over 1,400 political prisoners remain behind bars, including leaders of opposition parties and renowned human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022.

Ahead of the vote, Mr. Lukashenko alleged without offering evidence that Western countries were pondering plans to stage a coup in the country or to seize power by force. He ordered police to beef up armed patrols.

Speaking Monday, Mr. Lukashenko declared that the vote demonstrated broad support for his government. He noted that “there are a small number of hesitant people, there are some who are dissatisfied,” adding that “we will tighten them up and correct them” ahead of next year’s presidential vote.

The opposition said that five days of early balloting before Sunday’s election offered fertile ground for the outcome to be manipulated, with ballot boxes unprotected for five days. Election officials said Sunday that over 40 percent of voters had cast ballots during early voting.

After the vote, Belarus is set to form a new state body in addition to parliament—a 1,200-seat All-Belarus Popular Assembly that will include top officials, local legislators, union members, pro-government activists and others. It will have broad powers, including the authority to consider constitutional amendments and to appoint election officials and judges.

Mr. Lukashenko was believed a few years ago to be considering whether to lead the new body after stepping down, but he has changed track and announced on Sunday that he will run in next year’s presidential election.

Belarus for the first time also refused to invite observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor the election. Belarus is a member of the OSCE, a top trans-Atlantic security and rights group, and its monitors have been the only international observers at Belarusian elections for decades.

The U.S. State Department described Sunday’s vote as a “sham,” with spokesman Matthew Miller noting that it was held “in a climate of fear under which no electoral processes could be called democratic.”

Observers saw the balloting as a dress rehearsal for next year’s presidential vote.

“The authorities tested a rigid model of holding an election amid unprecedented repressions—without the opposition, international observers or protests,” said independent Belarusian political analyst Valery Karbalevich. “This model resembling a military operation will be used for the presidential election next year.”

By Yuras Karmanau

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