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Irregularities Charged in Belarus Election - 2001-09-09

After months of controversy, the voting is over in the former Soviet republic of Belarus, where Belarusians elected a new president. But even before the results are known there are widespread allegations of vote rigging by supporters of Aleksander Lukashenko.

Those who had voted before Belarussian independence could be forgiven for thinking that Minsk polling station number one reminded them of the former Soviet Union.

Music blared through a loudspeaker and fresh fruit and vegetables were being sold nearby. In the Soviet Union, officials tried to make voting a festive occasion by having music or concerts, but also offered hard to get goods, such as peaches, to encourage citizens to vote.

But critics of Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko say his elections are similar to Soviet elections in a more sinister way. They say there is no real choice because Mr. Lukashenko's supporters stuff ballot boxes and intimidate people into voting for the Belarusian president.

International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights Executive Director Aaron Rhodes has come to Belarus to monitor the elections. He said there has been widespread voter fraud on the part of Lukashenko supporters.

"We are receiving information that a number of these ballot boxes were opened, the seals broken and according to a number of reporters, ballots were removed and other ballots were put in, ballots that were voted in the way that someone wanted them to be voted, said Mr. Rhodes.

President Lukashenko has repeatedly denied these charges. The secretary of the central election committee, Nikolai Lozovik, said his committee had yet to hear any official complaint of voter fraud.

Mr. Lozovik said he would be surprised if any member of the election commission were working for a particular candidate and that the commission is independent.

International human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have often criticized Mr. Lukashenko for suppressing free speech and jailing political opponents. But the criticism has not hurt the Belarusian president who is still popular with many of the country's 10 million voters. They praise him for preserving many of the aspects of the Soviet system such as good pensions and collective farms.