Little suspense as Belarus votes

Andrew E. Kramer / New York Times News Service /

Published Sep 24, 2012 at 05:00AM

MINSK, Belarus — Belarus held parliamentary elections on Sunday, though the outcome was hardly in doubt: supporters of President Aleksandr Lukashenko have traditionally won, and now hold, all 110 seats in the chamber.

But there was some uncertainty surrounding the circumstances of the balloting.

The campaign has provided the first broad interaction between Belarus and international observers since a presidential election went badly awry here in 2010, ending in police beatings and mass arrests. The European Union in response imposed a travel ban on Lukashenko and 100 or so senior members of his government, the lifting of which now depends in part on the observer’s assessment of Sunday’s election.

Opponents of Lukashenko, always a mercurial figure, say his modest steps to ease election rules since 2010 are nothing more than window dressing.

In a sign of these deep troubles, soon after the last national election in Belarus, Irina Khalyp, the wife of the leading opposition candidate, awoke one morning to the greeting “Behold, the first lady of Belarus is getting up!”

The fellow inmates in her prison were, of course, joking. She was peeling herself off a lower plank in a bunk bed.

“We’re just falling into an abyss” politically, said Khalyp, who was released from prison last year but remains under house arrest. Authorities in 2010 also threatened to put her son into foster care. In April, they released her husband, Andrei Sannikov.

Lukashenko’s often absurd outbursts — in March he said it was “better to be a dictator than gay” — cast his rule in a cartoonish tinge. So has police behavior. When protesters resorted to flash mobs, clapping or eating ice cream in a group, police began to arrest people for clapping and eating ice cream.

But for dissidents like Khalyp, even small changes in election practices, the most that is hoped for in this vote, are pivotally important.

The Belarus Popular Front and another opposition party withdrew from the election last week and called for a boycott. The government, perhaps in response, subsidized delicious spreads of potato pancakes, pastries and sausages at buffets set up in the foyers of many polling sites.

By mid-afternoon on a drizzly election day in Minsk, turnout passed the 50 percent mark needed for the vote to be declared valid. Voters even tramped into one polling station, No. 85, to dutifully check the single name on the ballot. They could vote “yes” or “no.”

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