Belarus re-elects 'last dictator in Europe' for fifth term
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Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko won a fifth term in office by a landslide in Sunday’s election, but international monitors have slammed the vote for falling short of democratic standards.
“It is clear that Belarus still has a long way to go towards fulfilling its democratic commitments,” said Kent Hasted, head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) observer mission for the election.
“The recent release of political prisoners and a welcoming approach to observers were positive developments. However, the hope that this gave us for broader electoral progress was largely unfulfilled.”
He expressed particular disappointment over shortcomings during the counting and tabulation of votes.
On Sunday Lukashenko, who won by a landslide 83.5 percent, said Belarus had fulfilled all commitments for free and fair elections.
The European Union has said it could lift its sanctions on Belarus, including those on Lukashenko himself, after Sunday’s vote, barring any last-minute crackdown.
The lifting of EU sanctions would be welcome to Belarus, whose economy has been battered this year by a slump in the currency of Russia, a key trading partner and source of remittances from migrant workers.
‘A guarantor of stability’
Lukashenko's re-election five years ago led to mass protests and the imprisonment of leading opposition figures, but support for his 20-year-old regime has risen since he cast himself as a guarantor of stability in the face of an economic crisis and a pro-Russian separatist conflict in neighbouring Ukraine.
The West has long ostracised Lukashenko’s Belarus, described in 2005 by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as “Europe’s last dictatorship”, over its human rights record and clamp-down on political dissent. It has imposed economic sanctions on some Belarussian officials and companies.
Nevertheless, his criticism of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula last year, his hosting of Ukraine peace talks and his pardoning of the six opposition leaders in August suggest he is seeking to improve his image in the West, observers say.
“We have carried out everything the West wanted on the eve of the elections. If there is a desire in the West to improve our relations, nobody and nothing can prevent that,” Lukashenko said as he cast his vote.
“The ball is now firmly in the West’s court,” he said.
The central election commission said Lukashenko won 83.5 of the vote, slightly more than the 80 percent support registered in the 2010 elections, the head of the central election commission said in a briefing late on Sunday.
Around 6.5 percent voted against all candidates on the ballot, according to the commission.
Ties with Russia
Relations with former Soviet master Moscow have shown some signs of strain. In September, President Vladimir Putin approved a plan to build an airbase in Belarus, but early this month Lukashenko said his country had no need for such a base, appearing to bow to public protests on the eve of the election.
Previous elections in Belarus were considered unfair by Western observers and the (OSCE), which was monitoring Sunday’s vote. Observers said in September that the ballot represented a “pivotal moment” for Belarus to demonstrate a willingness to hold free and fair elections.
None of the three candidates running against Lukashenko in Sunday’s poll represented a serious challenge to his rule and opposition figures had called for a boycott of the election.
“Lukashenko and his system is a dead-end. There is no choice, but there is the choice not to be a sheep,” said Anatoly Lebedko, a leading opposition figure at an anti-government rally on Saturday that attracted a crowd in the low hundreds.
Some of those who voted on Sunday did not express much faith in the political process. “I voted because it is the duty of every citizen ... What good is there in this country? They spin their lies and we pretend that we believe them,” 68-year-old pensioner Alexander said, declining to give his last name.
While the president has been making some conciliatory gestures towards the opposition in recent months, it is unlikely the regime will become more welcoming of political dissent while Lukashenko remains in power.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)
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