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Belarussian Leader Wins Referendum on Extending Rule - 2004-10-18

Officials in the former Soviet republic, Belarus, say voters have endorsed constitutional changes that will allow authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko to seek a third term. But opposition leaders say the vote count was unfair.

Belarussian officials say 77 percent of voters approved the referendum that would allow Alexander Lukashenko to amend the constitution and run for a third five-year term.

Election Commission chief Lydia Yermoshina also says 86 percent of the country's seven million voters turned out in Sunday's election.

Opposition leaders say they believe the vote count was unfair and want an investigation in the small republic.

The vote took place amid widespread concern about whether polling would be free and fair in a country that has long been criticized for lack of democratic reforms and human rights abuses.

Mr. Lukashenko is a former state farm manager who has ruled Belarus for the past decade.

Anatoly Lebedko, the head of the Citizen's Union Party, one of the few opposition groups which still functions inside Belarus says Mr. Lukashenko wants to hold onto power forever and thinks of himself as a kind of czar or even a small God.

Analysts say that Mr. Lukashenko does enjoy genuine support especially among voters in rural areas and the elderly, who are afraid to lose to lose social benefits.

They point to other former Soviet republics, such as neighboring Russia, where many people have been left to fend for themselves amid spiraling prices for many goods and services.

Mr. Lukashenko rejects all charges against his rule, saying that foreign countries should mind their own business.

While voting Sunday, he singled out the United States for criticism, saying there are plenty of questions about the fairness of the American electoral system, as well.

Sunday's balloting was also held to elect deputies for a new 110-seat parliament, with Mr. Lukashenko predicting outright victory for his supporters there, as well.