Belarus opposition back in parliament after long exile - but strongman president enjoys 108-2 majority

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 September, 2016, 12:19pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 September, 2016, 10:06pm

Opposition groups in Belarus, a country once dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship” by the US, won seats in parliament for the first time since 2004 as President Alexander Lukashenko seeks to mend ties with the West to help his battered economy.

Allies of Lukashenko, who has wielded an iron grip on politics in the former Soviet republic of 9.5 million since 1994, dominated Sunday’s election, taking 108 of parliament’s 110 seats. Opponents of the government won two mandates, one by a member of the pro-Western United Civil Party, and another by an independent from the non-governmental Belarusian Language Society. The former Soviet republic has drawn repeated criticism from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a ballot-monitoring watchdog, for failing to hold fully democratic elections and suppressing opposition parties.

Belarus re-elects ‘last dictator in Europe’ for fifth term as Lukashenko eyes closer ties with West

“I want the opposition to exist and be constructive,” Lukashenko told reporters after casting his vote in the company of his twelve-year-old son Nikolai. “I don’t want the opposition to be a fifth column in the country.”

A few critical voices in the country’s legislature will do little to challenge the 62-year-old president, who expanded his powers in 1996 to weaken parliament’s ability to influence policies. Still, the opposition’s gains are a nod to Lukashenko’s efforts to improve his country’s relations with Western countries as Belarus struggles to recover from an economic crisis that has hammered its ruble, fueled inflation and triggered a recession.

Lidiya Ermoshina, the head of the Minsk-based central electoral committee, gave a preliminary turnout estimate of 74.3 per cent.

Buffeted by the downturn in Russia, its major political ally and economic partner, Belarus secured a US$2 billion aid lifeline earlier this year.

Belarus has tried to present itself as a beacon of stability amid geopolitical uncertainty. While Russia has clashed with the European Union and US over its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and what the western nations say is its support for anti-government rebels in that country’s east, Lukashenko has won plaudits from some leaders for hosting the main talks aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Opposition parties in Belarus, which borders three EU members, had been sidelined since 1995, when they collided with Lukashenko over his plan for a referendum that granted him the power to dissolve parliament. Special forces troops stormed the assembly that year, beating protesting deputies. After two referendums the following year, a new constitution was adopted, the chamber was dissolved and the new House of Representatives was established.

Since 2004 elections, parliament has included no one who would openly describe themselves as opposing the president. That helped prompt then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to call Lukashenko “Europe’s last dictator” in 2005. Belarus’s ties with the West have since improved, with the EU dropping sanctions against 170 people in Belarus, including Lukashenko, as well as three companies in February.