Voters in Belarus went to the polls Sunday, but there is little doubt that the current president, Aleksander Lukashenko will win. The election campaign has been criticized by international observers, who say the process has heavily favored Mr. Lukashenko.
Aleksander Lukashenko has led the former Soviet republic of Belarus for the last seven years. And political analyst Irina Kobritskaya, based in Moscow, says he will very likely continue to lead it for some time to come. "I think that nobody, nobody sane, can predict anything but the victory of president Lukashenko," she said.
Mr. Lukashenko was first elected president in 1994. Two years later, the former Belarus Communist Party official and head of a collective farm took steps to ensure that his reign as president would not be brief. In August 1996= he proposed a referendum that would increase his powers as president and also lengthen his term in office from five to seven years. Critics charge that Mr. Lukashenko also used a variety of tactics, ranging from harassing the opposition press to voter fraud, to ensure that the referendum was approved by an overwhelming margin.
In the years since then, Mr. Lukashenko has become accustomed to using his powers as president. He has frequently been accused of shutting down independent newspapers and jailing his political opponents.
In July, two former Belarussian prosecutors fled to the United States and accused President Lukashenko of running a death squad to eliminate his political opponents. Mr. Lukashenko responded by saying the West was running a propaganda campaign to force him from office.
Critics say that Mr. Lukashenko is using many of the same tactics to win re-election as he did to win approval of the 1996 referendum. One of Europe's most prominent human rights groups, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, says it hasn't been able to monitor the entire election process.
The head of the OSCE delegation, Hrair Balian, says Belarus delayed so long in granting OSCE monitors permission to enter the country that they missed much of the pre-election campaign.
What's more, when the OSCE finally obtained permission to monitor the election, two members of its delegation were barred from entering the country and declared persona non grata by the Belarussian government, a development that Mr. Balian said was unprecedented in the history of the organization.
While in Belarus, Mr. Balian says, the monitors have witnessed some worrying trends. "In the past four weeks or so, we have been able to document over 20 incidents of human rights violations involving the independent or opposition media that have taken place," he said. "This at the very least creates an atmosphere of fear and chills the campaign atmosphere."
According to Mr. Balian, government officials often confiscate newspapers, arrest journalists or seize computer equipment in an attempt to silence critics of President Lukashenko.
But polls show the Belarussian president remains surprisingly popular with the country's 10 million people, especially among older voters and those living in rural areas. Analysts say this is because the president has been able to maintain the features of the former Soviet economy that appeal to these voters, such as good pensions and state support for agriculture.
Ms. Kobritskaya, the Moscow-based analyst, says even if the elections were completely fair, Mr. Lukashenko would probably still win. "It is not the support of the elite that much. It is more the support of the people who get their salary on time and get their pension on time," he said. The closest thing to competition for Mr. Lukashenko is Vladimir Goncharik, a former trade union leader.
The two candidates offer voters a real choice. Mr. Lukashenko says he plans to ban any privatization of businesses and preserve the popular social services that are a holdover from the Soviet era. Mr. Goncharik says, if elected, he would seek to liberalize the economy and introduce market reforms.
Mr. Goncharik has also pledged, if elected, to lead an investigation into charges that the Lukashenko government is responsible for the disappearance of several opponents. Relatives of four prominent opposition figures who disappeared have blamed the Belarussian president for their disappearance.
But Mr. Goncharik's campaign has been hindered by the fact that he has very little access to the public. While Mr. Lukashenko is prominently featured on almost every television and radio show, Mr. Goncharik's television time has been limited to two 30 minute slots on state television and his campaign posters are often ripped down by authorities.
In fact, says Mr. Balian of the OSCE, not much attention at all is being paid to the election. "There is very little campaigning taking place in the country. One cannot see the usual posters, campaign banners that one is used to seeing in other countries, including the CIS countries. Here there is hardly any evidence of campaign around town and we're less than a week away from the election."
Belarussians voting Sunday and election commission officials hope to have the results by Monday. OSCE officials say they will also be issuing a report on Monday about the fairness of the elections.