Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said Monday he won a mandate from voters to stay in power in a weekend referendum scrapping presidential term limits, but foreign observers said the vote was marred by violations, and thousands of people protested the outcome.
The Central Election Commission said 77 percent of voters supported the referendum scrapping a two-term limit on presidents. That allows the authoritarian president of this ex-Soviet republic to run again in 2006.
He has led the nation since 1994.
Parliamentary elections for the largely powerless 110-seat House of Representatives were held alongside the referendum.
“People in Belarus once again said ‘Yes’ to our course,” said Lukashenko, whose crackdown on dissent, the independent media and the opposition has put his nation on an isolated, anti-Western path.
The referendum was seen as a critical test for Belarus to either move closer to the West or risk further alienation. The European Union and the United States had warned a “yes” vote could push the country even further away from its European neighbors.
“We regret that Belarus missed an opportunity to take a step closer to the European family, where it belongs,” said Tone Tingsgaard, vice president of the Organization for Security and Cooperation Parliamentary Assembly.
In the parliamentary election, the opposition failed to win a single seat. But opposition leaders vowed to cite widespread allegations of fraud as they set about mobilizing discontent in this nation of 10 million, and they called for more street protests.
“Lukashenko won by the vote count, but he lost the faith of hundreds of thousands of people,” said Anatoly Lebedko, head of the United Civil Party.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the Belarusian people were kept from freely and fairly expressing their will.
“Electoral misconduct continued throughout the voting and vote-tabulation process,” he said.
Street protests erupt
Thousands of young Belarusians held a noisy evening protest in a square near the presidential administration Monday night, yelling, “Lukashenko lost!” The group later marched to the headquarters of the security agency, the KGB. Witnesses said about 20 people were detained, but Interfax news agency quoted Interior Minister Vladimir Naumov as denying anyone was detained.
“We can’t accept the falsification of the referendum,” said protester Anna Levankhova, a 20-year-old student.
The OSCE, which sent 270 observers to watch the parliamentary elections, said the vote “fell significantly short” of democratic standards.
The opposition said the whole process was riddled with violations.
A government-endorsed exit poll indicating the referendum would pass was broadcast repeatedly on state television while polls were still open. Under Belarusian law, exit poll results cannot be announced until voting has ended to avoid influencing those who have not yet cast ballots.
Opposition leaders also charged that authorities had arrested more than half of the 200 exit pollers from the independent Gallup Organization/Baltic Surveys.
That independent exit poll found only 48.4 percent of 37,602 respondents said they voted to scrap presidential term limits, short of the simple majority needed for the measure to pass.
The opposition saw some 40 percent of its candidates for parliament stripped from the ballots. Opposition leaders said their observers were barred from some voting stations, and they complained candidates were threatened with losing their jobs.
‘Suggestion of ballot-stuffing’
Ambassador Audrey Glover, head of the OSCE observation mission, said in many cases observers were not allowed to monitor the vote count, and those who were let in reported phone conversations between election workers participating in the count and unidentified interlocutors. She said in some cases there was “suggestion of ballot-stuffing.”
The OSCE observers pointed to the exclusion of many candidates from the parliamentary election, police raids on campaign offices and strong bias in state-controlled media.
“The dominant influence of the state administration was apparent at all levels of the election process,” Glover said.
Central Elections Commission Chairwoman Lidiya Ermoshina insisted election laws were not violated.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry put its stamp of approval on the referendum, saying it reflected the will of the people and had proceeded “in a calm and transparent way.”