Belarus leader dismisses democracy even as vote takes place


A Belarus’ Army serviceman casts his ballot at a polling station during parliamentary elections, in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

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MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Belarus’ authoritarian president has brushed off concerns that Sunday’s parliament election, from which many opposition figures have been excluded, would be regarded as neither free nor fair.

After casting his ballot in a polling station in the capital of Minsk, President Alexander Lukashenko was asked about whether it was important that the election be regarded as valid by Western countries.

“I’m not in the habit of worrying about this matter,” he said, adding that his administration “isn’t playing at some kind of democracy.”

Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss, has ruled the ex-Soviet nation of 10 million with a heavy hand since 1994, suppressing dissent and independent news media and retaining elements of a Soviet-style economy.

Some voters appreciated Lukashenko’s iron grip on the economy.

“In Belarus, they preserved the best aspects of the Soviet Union — free medical treatment, a pension — and we’re afraid to lose this and we support the authorities,” 71-year-old retiree Tatiana Rusetskaya said after casting her ballot.

But others say the stability that Lukashenko vaunts is overrated.

“Living (standards) have become worse and my family doesn’t feel the stability that the authorities talk about. Only prices rise stably, not pay,” said 40-year-old Dmitry Velichko.

In Sunday’s election, 516 candidates were contesting 110 parliament seats.

Final turnout figures were not immediately available when the polls closed, but the national elections commission said 70% of the electorate had voted by 6 p.m. (1500 GMT).

Earlier, the commission said 36% of the country’s voters cast early ballots in the election, raising concerns among the opposition that the results could be manipulated because the ballot boxes are unguarded and the vote count is done without the presence of observers.

Last week, an independent observer filmed a woman trying to stuff ballots into a box at a polling station in Brest. Election Commission chief Lydia Yermoshina, who has held the job for 23 years, responded by saying the observer who made the video should be stripped of his accreditation.

“It doesn’t matter what an observer says,” she said. “The most important thing is the ballot box. The truth is determined by the vote count.”

The U.S. and the European Union have constantly criticized Belarusian authorities for flawed elections and crackdowns on the opposition, introducing sanctions against Lukashenko’s government. But some of those penalties have been lifted in recent years as Belarus freed political prisoners as part of Lukashenko’s efforts to reach out to the West during tense times with Russia, Belarus’ main sponsor and ally.

Moscow has recently introduced higher prices for its oil supplies, dealing a heavy blow to Belarus, which has profited from the export of oil products made from cheap Russian crude. Lukashenko has criticized the price hike as part of the Kremlin’s efforts to coerce Belarus into a closer alliance.

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