Loyalists sweep Belarus vote as opposition takes no seats

Minsk (AFP) –


Candidates loyal to Belarus's authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko have swept to victory in parliamentary elections, results showed Monday, with the opposition failing to take a single seat.

Critics had already denounced Sunday's vote as a fraud and said it was rife with violations, despite Lukashenko's recent efforts to reach out to the West.

Official results released Monday showed parties loyal to Lukashenko taking all 110 seats in the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of a parliament dubbed a rubber stamp by critics.

The opposition had previously held two seats in the chamber.

The 65-year-old Lukashenko-- who has been dubbed "Europe's last dictator" -- has ruled the ex-Soviet nation since 1994 and overseen a series of elections that international observers have deemed unfair.

The country is set to hold a presidential election next year and as he cast his ballot on Sunday Lukashenko confirmed he would again be a candidate.

He said he understood that Western countries would be watching the parliamentary vote but that it was Belarusians who would have the last word.

"We hold this vote in our country for our people, to make things better, and we hold it in the way we understand."

Those critical of Lukashenko faced little choice at the ballot box, with the main opposition leaders and the only two current opposition MPs barred from standing.

An election monitoring campaign organised by opposition parties reported multiple violations on voting day, including officials inflating voter numbers.

- Reaching out to the West -

Rights activists monitoring the vote complained observers were thrown out, banned from taking photographs and had their view blocked.

According to the authorities, more than 35 percent of the 6.8 million electorate voted ahead of polling day. Turnout reached 77 percent, according to the official results.

In recent months Lukashenko has been making renewed attempts to reach out to Western nations, which have been critical of his record on human rights and democracy.

He made a rare visit to western Europe this month, meeting Austrian leaders in Vienna and saying he wanted the European Union to be "an important political and business partner" for his country.

He also hosted then White House national security advisor John Bolton for rare talks in Minsk in August, saying a "new chapter" was opening in ties with Washington.

Lukashenko is seeking a counterweight in relations with giant neighbour Russia, which is keen to ensure Belarus remains in its sphere of influence.

EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic has said the bloc was watching Sunday's election closely.

But there was little optimism among foreign observers for a more democratic vote.

People did not expect polls to be "genuinely competitive" and "had little confidence in the process", the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, an international election and war monitor, said in a preliminary report.