Belarus re-elects president amid vote-rigging row

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The Independent Online

Alexander Lukashenko has been re-elected as the President of Belarus with a massive majority, which critics claim is the result of systematic electoral fraud.

He overwhelmed his main opponent, Vladimir Goncharik, a trade union leader, by winning 76 per cent of the vote.

As Mr Lukashenko celebrated his victory, international observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said there had been "fundamental flaws in the electoral process". It noted, in particular, the government's control over the counting of votes. The chief of OSCE in Belarus, Hans-Georg Weick, a former head of West German intelligence, said the results could have been falsified on a massive scale. Mr Weick, who has been fiercely criticised by Mr Lukashenko, said: "In each election district, local officials produce figures that may have no connection with the actual balloting." No independent observers were allowed to watch the count.

The OSCE noted that Mr Lukashenko's regime is "not accustomed to and does everything in its power to block the opposition".

Belarussians filled the streets of the capital, Minsk, yesterday to protest against the result. Hundreds of people, answering a call from Mr Goncharik, gathered in a city square, defying the threat of a security force crackdown on protests.

In pre-election polls, Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled the 10 million people of Belarus for the past seven years, had the support of between 40 and 50 per cent of the electorate. The additional 25 per cent which he claimed to have won is allegedly the result of fraud. The high turn-out of 82 per cent was achieved by ordering students and civil servants to cast a vote.

Gennadi, a young Belarussian who did not want to give his full name said: "In my village, my grandparents were approached by local officials who brought ballot papers to their house and asked them if they would support Lukashenko. When they said would vote for the him, the officials handed over the forms."

Lidia Yermoshina, the head of the commission which organised the elections, had said she would "consider it a personal tragedy" if Mr Lukashenko was not returned.|

Ironically, Mr Lukashenko would probably have won the election anyway. He is popular among the poor, the old and in country districts. Although wages and pensions in Belarus are low, they are still paid on time, unlike many other parts of the former Soviet Union.