- Associated Press - Monday, September 24, 2012

MINSK, Belarus — Not a single opposition politician won a seat in the Belarus parliament in a weekend vote that was roundly condemned by international observers and looks set to deepen the former Soviet nation’s diplomatic isolation.

Critics also said the 74.3 percent turnout reported by the Central Election Commission chairman Monday was too high and indicated widespread fraud.

The election resulted in representatives of three parties that have backed the policy agenda of President Alexander Lukashenko securing slots in parliament.

“This election was not competitive from the start,” said Matteo Mecacci, leader of the short-term observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

“A free election depends on people being free to speak, organize and run for office, and we didn’t see that in this campaign.”

The main opposition parties had boycotted the election to protest the detention of political prisoners and opportunities for election fraud.

Belarus‘ parliament has long been considered a rubber-stamp body for Mr. Lukashenko’s policies. He has ruled the former Soviet nation since 1994, and Western observers have criticized all recent elections in Belarus as undemocratic.

Local independent observers estimated the overall turnout as being almost 19 percent lower than the official 74.3 percent figure.

Belarus gets ever closer to the worst standards of Soviet elections,” said Valentin Stefanovich, coordinator of the Rights Activists for Free Elections group.

At least 20 independent election observers were detained, according to rights activists.

Political analyst Leonid Zaiko said the way the elections were held highlighted Mr. Lukashenko’s desire to prepare for another beckoning economic crisis.

“He plans to control the situation with an iron fist. He has no time for any opposition, not on the street and certainly not in parliament,” Mr. Zaiko said.

Mr. Lukashenko’s landslide win in a 2010 presidential election triggered a mass street protest that was brutally suppressed. Some of the 700 people arrested at that protest are still in jail, including presidential candidate Nikolai Stankevich.

Opposition politicians have cautioned supporters to refrain from holding protest rallies this time.

The opposition had hoped to use this election to build support; but 33 of 35 candidates from the United Civil Party were barred from television, while the state-owned press refused to publish their election programs.

A second opposition party, the Belarusian Popular Front, also boycotted the vote.

The United States and the European Union have imposed economic and travel sanctions on the Belarusian government because of its crackdown on opposition groups and independent news media.

EU foreign ministers are due to hold talks next month on political freedoms in Belarus. They are expected to consider possible revisions to sanctions against the country aimed at more specifically targeting those in the leadership accused of political repression.

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