Election observers and government opponents questioned the poll’s integrity. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said Monday that “fundamental freedoms were disregarded and the integrity of the election process was not adequately safeguarded.”
A statement from the OSCE team cited concerns including the exclusion of many opposition candidates, limited opportunity for public campaigning and shortcomings during vote counting. “These elections have demonstrated an overall lack of respect for democratic commitments,” an observer team leader, Margaret Cederfeldt, said in the statement.
The outgoing parliament in the former Soviet republic had two opposition deputies. But they and many other opposition candidates were blocked from running again. Belarusian opposition figures had said early voting was a particular concern, because the ballot boxes are not guarded. One independent observer reported filming a woman stuffing a box with ballots, but the incident was brushed off by the elections commission head.
The election came ahead of a presidential election next year, in which Lukashenko plans to run for another term. In office since 1994, the former collective farm manager has stifled dissent and independent news media and retained many aspects of a Soviet-style economy.
“The parliamentary election has served as a dress rehearsal of next summer’s presidential vote,” said political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky. Although Lukashenko has sought better relations with the West, on election day he said he wasn’t worried about criticism of the vote.
“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.” The U.S. and the European Union have repeatedly criticized Belarusian authorities for flawed elections and crackdowns on the opposition, introducing sanctions against Lukashenko's government. 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 amid tensions with Belarus’ main sponsor and ally, Russia.
Moscow has recently introduced higher prices for its oil supplies, depriving Belarus of a hefty income from the export of oil products made from cheap Russian crude. Lukashenko has criticized the price hike as part of the Kremlin’s attempts to strong-arm his nation into a closer alliance.
“Amid the argument with Russia, Lukashenko tries to normalize relations with the West, but it would be hard to do that without the opposition in parliament,” said Artyom Shraibman, a Minsk-based political analyst. “The parliamentary election comes as a test for the West that was ready to negotiate and make deals with Minsk.”