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Voting Under Way in Controversial Belarus Referendum  - 2004-10-17


Parliamentary elections are underway in Belarus. Voters also are being asked to decide whether the constitution should be changed to allow President Alexander Lukashenko to serve a third term.

Currently, presidents are limited to just two five-year terms in the former Soviet republic.

Mr. Lukashenko is asking for an amendment to the constitution that would allow him to serve any number of terms. He needs the support of 50 percent of all registered voters.

While voting officially began Sunday, voters were able to begin casting ballots last Tuesday, and needed no special documents to do so.

Belarus has long been criticized for serious human rights abuses and lack of democratic reforms.

The United States and the European Union have already raised concerns about the fairness of the vote.

Last week, the U.S. State Department expressed "serious doubts" that the election would meet international democratic standards, citing what it called the Belorussian government's "persistent and serious infringements of human rights and democracy."

Mr. Lukashenko has brushed aside such criticism, accusing outside nations of interfering in the country's internal affairs.

Over the years, Mr. Lukashenko has crushed opposition to his rule, with most opponents either in jail or in exile.

Washington and the European Union recently imposed a travel ban on top Belorussian officials who were allegedly involved in the disappearance of leading opposition figures.

Those few opponents still in the country say most of their candidates for the 110-seat parliament have been disqualified, and they fear vote-counting will be rigged.

The opposition holds just four seats in the current parliament. Mr. Lukashenko is predicting that his supporters will make a clean sweep of the new legislature.

The run-up to Sunday's vote was marked by a strong pro-Lukashenko campaign in the state-run media, as well as enormous billboards proclaiming that a 'yes' vote on the referendum to extend Mr. Lukashenko's rule was actually a vote for the country itself.

But opposition was evident in anti-Lukashenko graffiti on walls around the country.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is monitoring the election.

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