Belarusians vote in a tightly controlled election as the opposition calls for its boycott

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Belarusian Presidential Press Service

In this photo provided by the Belarusian Presidential Press Service, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, right, presents flowers to an election commission official ahead of voting at a polling station, in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024. Lukashenko was believed a few years ago to be considering whether to lead the new body after stepping down, but his calculus has apparently changed, and he announced on Sunday that he will run in next year's presidential election. (Belarusian Presidential Press Service via AP)

TALLINN – Sunday's tightly controlled parliamentary and local elections in Belarus are set to cement the hard-line rule of the country’s authoritarian leader, despite a prominent opposition leader's call for a boycott.

President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron hand for nearly three decades and on Sunday announced that he will run for the presidency again next year. He accuses the West of trying to use the vote to undermine his government and “destabilize” the nation of 9.5 million people.

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Most candidates belong to the four officially registered parties: Belaya Rus, the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Party of Labor and Justice. Those parties all support Lukashenko’s policies. About a dozen other parties were denied registration last year.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is in exile in neighboring Lithuania after challenging Lukashenko in the 2020 presidential election, urged voters to boycott the elections.

“There are no people on the ballot who would offer real changes because the regime only has allowed puppets convenient for it to take part,” Tsikhanouskaya said in a video statement. “We are calling to boycott this senseless farce, to ignore this election without choice.” Tikhanovskaya’s video address was broadcast in public places throughout Belarus on Saturday after opposition activists were able to gain access to some 2,000 screens used for advertising. Viasna Human Rights Center reported Sunday that a number of employees at the company that owned the screens have been arrested in Minsk.

Sunday’s balloting is the first in Belarus since the contentious 2020 vote that handed Lukashenko his sixth term in office and triggered an unprecedented wave of mass demonstrations.

Protests swept the country for months, bringing 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.

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.

The election takes place amid 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.

The opposition says the early balloting that began Tuesday offers fertile ground for the vote to be manipulated, with ballot boxes unprotected for five days.

Election officials said Sunday that over 40% of the voters had cast ballots during early voting from Tuesday to Saturday. As of 9 p.m. local time, turnout was 72.98%, meeting the 50% threshold needed under Belarusian law in order for the vote to stand, according to the Belarusian Central Election Commission. Turnout in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, was notably lower than in other Belarusian regions, only reaching 61.54%. By comparison, the area with the next lowest turnout, the wider Minsk region, recorded 74.20%.

The Viasna Human Rights Center said students, soldiers, teachers and other civil servants were forced to participate in early voting.

“Authorities are using all available means to ensure the result they need — from airing TV propaganda to forcing voters to cast ballots early,” said Viasna representative Pavel Sapelka. “Detentions, arrests and searches are taking place during the vote.”

Speaking during Tuesday’s meeting with top Belarusian law enforcement officials, Lukashenko alleged without offering evidence that Western countries were pondering plans to stage a coup in the country or to try to seize power by force. He ordered police to beef up armed patrols across Belarus, declaring that “it’s the most important element of ensuring law and order.”

After the vote, Belarus is set to form a new state body — the 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.

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

“Tell (the opposition) that I will run. And the more difficult the situation, the more actively they will disturb our society ... the more strain they put on you, myself and society, the sooner I will run in these elections,” the strongman leader told reporters as he cast his ballot in the Belarusian capital, according to state media.

For the first time, curtains were removed from voting booths at polling stations, and voters were banned from taking pictures of their ballots. During the 2020 election, activists encouraged voters to photograph their ballots in a bid to prevent authorities from manipulating the vote in Lukashenko’s favor.

Belarusian state TV aired footage of Interior Ministry drills in which police detained a purported offender who was photographing his ballot and others who created an artificial queue outside a polling station.

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.

Since 1995, not a single election in Belarus has been recognized as free and fair by the OSCE.

The OSCE said the decision not to allow the agency's monitors deprived the country of a "comprehensive assessment by an international body.”

“The human rights situation in Belarus continues to deteriorate as those who voice dissent or stand up for the human rights of others are subject to investigation, persecution and frequently prosecution,” it said in a statement.

Observers noted that authorities have not even tried to pretend that the vote is democratic.

The election offers the government an opportunity to run a "systems test after massive protests and a serious shock of the last presidential election and see whether it works,” said Artyom Shraibman, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “The parliament will be sterile after the opposition and all alternative voices were barred from campaigning. It’s important for authorities to erase any memory of the protests.” In a statement, a U.S. State Department official described the elections as a “sham.”

“The United States condemns the Lukashenko regime’s sham parliamentary and local elections that concluded today in Belarus. The elections were held in a climate of fear under which no electoral processes could be called democratic,” said spokesman Matthew Miller.

“The United States again calls on the Lukashenko regime to end its crackdown, release all political prisoners, and open dialogue with its political opponents. The Belarusian people deserve better.”

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