Voters in Belarus went to the polls Sunday in a legislative election marred by the kind of irregularities that have characterized previous ballots in the former Soviet state.
Still, two female opposition leaders managed to win seats in the parliament's lower house.
In Sunday's election, 484 candidates, most of them current government officials, competed for the lower parliamentary house's 110 seats.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which independently monitored the vote, said Monday that while the vote was "efficiently organized, and there were visible efforts to address some long-standing issues," a number of "systemic shortcomings" were apparent.
Belarus' "legal framework restricts political rights and fundamental freedoms and was interpreted in an overly restrictive manner," the OSCE said. "Media coverage did not enable voters to make an informed choice and, despite an overall increase in the number of candidates, including a significant number from the opposition, the campaign lacked visibility."
Despite some "positive efforts" by the Belarusian authorities, it said, "early voting and counting and tabulation procedures were still marred by a significant number of procedural irregularities and a lack of transparency."
According to observers of Sunday's vote in Belarus, election monitors were kicked out of voting sites, voter turnout numbers were inflated, and prisoners, as well as patients in mental hospitals, voted in large numbers.
In spite of the irregularities, two opposition candidates won seats in the parliament's lower house — Anna Kanopatskaya of the United Civil Party and independent candidate Alena Anisim. They were the first opposition members to win parliamentary seats in 20 years.
Despite the authorities' widely touted liberalization of the election process, Belarus' latest legislative contest proceeded much like previous ones: Most independent candidates were blocked from participating, and prison inmates as well as patients in mental health institutions were able to vote by means of absentee ballots.
As in previous elections, the authorities also encouraged early voting — thereby allowing it to conceal a large number of voters from the scrutiny of the public and independent observers, say critics. According to polls, 30 percent or more of the country's voters cast their ballots early.
Students gave accounts via social media about being forced to vote early under the threat of being evicted from their dorm rooms or expelled from college. Human rights activists reported that prisoners voted in large numbers under the control of the authorities.
City Hospital No. 10 in Belarus' capital Minsk reported a 100 percent voter turnout, meaning that all of its 605 patients — including people in intensive care, those in a coma and those under anesthesia — voted.
Among those who voted Sunday was Belarus' authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, who was first elected to lead the country in 1994.
After a decade in power, Lukashenko held a referendum in 2004 eliminating presidential term limits — a move that was condemned by the United States and the European Union.