Belarusians cast ballots Sunday for a new parliament in the authoritarian former Soviet republic that has been taking steps toward rapprochement with the West. There are 484 candidates for the 110 lower-house seats that are being contested, but opposition leaders hold little hope of establishing a substantial presence in the legislature. The current House of Representatives has no opposition members.
Belarus’ Soviet-style command economy has staggered in recent years. Gross domestic product fell 4 percent in 2015 and is down another 3 percent so far this year. President Alexander Lukashenko is eager to shore it up with Western investment, and the country is seeking a $3 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.
Belarus released all political prisoners last year, spurring the European Union to lift sanctions. The U.S. also suspended sanctions against some Belarusian enterprises, saying the issue of fully lifting them would be considered after a review of the elections to the lower house; upper house members are appointed by the president or chosen by local councils
Critics say tight restrictions on campaigning and state control of the news media inhibit a genuinely free election in Belarus. There are also concerns that the state can manipulate the results through early balloting, since ballot boxes were left unguarded during the five days of early voting.
“Lukashenko is showing the West that the opposition figures are not thrown into jail and repression is not open, but he is not capable of more. Parliament will remain sterile, the deputies will be carefully selected,” said Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent political analyst.
After casting his ballot in the capital, Minsk, Lukashenko said the West should be satisfied with how the elections were conducted. Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager, has led Belarus since 1994, consistently cracking down on opposition.
“Yes, we did everything so that there would not be any complaints put before us from the Western side,” he said. But opposition leaders say nothing meaningful has been done to ensure a fair election.
“The ruling regime has not fulfilled even one of the recommendations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on democratic election law and in practice the elections are taking place in the habitual scenario of falsification,” said a statement signed by more than 100 opposition candidates.
After the 2012 parliament elections, the OSCE called for such measures including increasing transparency of the vote count and improving rights of free expression. The Central Election Commission said turnout nationwide was nearly 68 percent. About 25 percent of the electorate cast ballots early, according to the commission. It wasn’t clear when results would be announced. Some voters agreed about the election conditions, but appeared resigned.
“Yes, nothing in the country has changed, but there is stability and order,” Pavel Lastovsky, a 56-year-old engineer who voted at a Minsk school, said. “We don’t need a shock.”
“I’ve had time to grow old with Lukashenko, of course he is tired,” said voter Tatiana Chernyavskaya, 45, a laboratory technician. “But the authorities guarantee me a job and a salary, even if not very large. What does the opposition guarantee?”