Opposition boycott and apathy threaten Belarus election
MINSK - A Belarussian parliamentary election on Sunday is likely to reinforce hardline President Alexander Lukashenko's grip on the small former Soviet country despite a boycott call from the dispirited opposition.
The two main opposition parties have urged people to go fishing and mushrooming rather than vote in what they see as a sham exercise to produce a chamber which largely rubber-stamps Lukashenko's directives.
But four days of early voting by students, armed service staff and police in the tightly-controlled country have already produced a 19 percent turnout, according to official figures, and there was no question of the boycott threatening the overall turnout threshold and the validity of Sunday's ballot.
The outcome will enable Lukashenko to present the election as a genuine democratic process. Western monitoring agencies have not judged an election in Belarus, ruled by Lukashenko for 18 years, free and fair since 1995.
A former Soviet state farm director once described by the U.S. administration of George W. Bush as the last dictator of Europe, Lukashenko cracked down on street protests against his re-election in December 2010.
Scores of his opponents - including several who stood against him - were arrested. Many now either lie low after periods in jail or have fled the country.
Human rights bodies say the run-up to Sunday's poll - inconsequential though it is - has been marked by arrests and detention of opposition activists.
State-run TV and radio have made no mention of the boycott call. Opposition groups have been prevented from holding street protests or giving out leaflets to support their timid action.
"These are all banned," said Anatoly Lebedko, head of the opposition United Civic Party, gesturing to a pile of leaflets on his desk which called on people to take their families to the park, go fishing or stroll in the woods rather than vote.
Activists who had tried to distribute them were stopped from doing so by police and the leaflets seized, he said.
His party posted a video on YouTube featuring activists gathering mushrooms, playing chess and reading books in a park - all alternatives to going to vote.
Lukashenko, touring farms 300 km (186 miles) from the capital Minsk on Friday, said of the opposition: "They are afraid of going to the people."
He said his opponents were financed by Western groups and did not really want power. "They have been given a lot of cash. They have enough," he said.
Lack of interest
While shrugging off the boycott threat, authorities have been unsettled by a genuine lack of interest in the election, one of the most low-key ballots in Belarus since it became independent 20 years ago.
Earlier this week Belarussian state TV rejigged its programmes to show footage of people enthusiastically casting their ballots in early voting which started last Tuesday.
Opposition activists say that many higher education students were told to go and vote, sometimes under threat of losing their subsidised accommodation.
Many senior opposition figures have dropped out of sight following the 2010 police crackdown including Andrei Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister, and Vladimir Neklyayev who heads the Tell the Truth movement. Both of them ran against Lukashenko in 2010 and subsequently spent time in jail.
Another well-known political personality, Alexander Milinkevich, who ran against Lukashenko for president in 2006, sought to register as a candidate in Sunday's election but was disqualified from doing so for technical reasons.
Earlier this week, state security police broke up a small demonstration urging people to cook borshch - beetroot soup - instead of voting. Several activists were arrested as well as press photographers covering the event. Some of the journalists were released after about two hours.
Analysts say that election is not likely to promote any strong personality capable of competing with Lukashenko among the deputies.
"The opposition is virtually broken. It has few resources and there is no real programme," said Belarussian independent political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky.
Despite U.S. and European Union sanctions, which prevent Lukashenko and his inner circle travelling to anywhere in the West, the small country has weathered a currency crisis which drained it of dollars and caused two big devaluations.
This was largely thanks to Russia, which provided $4.5 billion in loans and investments in exchange for access to industrial assets such as pipelines pumping Russian gas to Europe.
Relations with the United States and the EU deteriorated sharply after the 2010 crackdown, and Belarus has since moved closer to Russia with which it has an open border and shares a common air defence network. (Additional reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)