MINSK - Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko maintained his hold on power after results published Monday showed not a single opposition candidate had won a seat in a weekend parliamentary election.
Lukashenko has governed the former Soviet republic with an iron fist for a quarter of a century and he announced on Sunday he would stand again in the 2020 presidential election.
The 65-year-old has given more leeway to the opposition and released political prisoners in recent years in a bid to improve ties with the West after disputes with traditional ally Moscow.
But official data on Monday showed, on a 77% turnout, no opposition figure won a seat. At the last election in 2016, two opposition members won seats for the first time in 20 years but neither was allowed to stand again this time around.
"The (election) result has long been determined. The authorities selected approved candidates. A change of power in Belarus is not possible through elections," Nikolai Statkevich, a leading opposition figure, told Reuters.
Western monitoring agencies have not judged a Belarus election to be free and fair since 1995, and on Monday international observers criticized the lack of a level playing field and questioned whether results were reported honestly.
"These elections have demonstrated an overall lack of respect for democratic commitments," said Margareta Cederfelt, leader of an observer mission from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
"Parliamentary elections are in danger of becoming a formality," she added.
The European Union called the election a "lost opportunity" to conduct a fair vote and urged Minsk to carry out reforms ahead of the presidential election next year.
"This will also be key for achieving the full potential of EU-Belarus relations, building on the positive cooperation of the last three years," it said in a statement.
Yauheni Preiherman, director of the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations, said Sunday's election result was unlikely to lead to a freeze in ties with the EU because other issues were at stake in the relationship.
The EU and Minsk are negotiating an agreement on a simplified visa regime, while Brussels is also pressing Belarus to abolish the death penalty.
Lukashenko: 'Trust me'
Lukashenko said on Sunday the Belarusian people could vote him out of office next year if they no longer wanted him.
"I have promised that I would not hang on to this seat until my fingers turn blue. Trust me, it's not really the softest chair," he told reporters.
U.S. and EU sanctions imposed on Belarus over its treatment of political opponents were mostly lifted in 2016 following the release of political prisoners and other reforms.
In September, the United States and Belarus announced they would resume ambassadorial relations for the first time since 2008.
Relations with Russia suffered after Minsk refused to recognize Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in 2014. Moscow also cut subsidies to Belarus that have long kept the country of 9.5 million in its orbit.