Polling stations have opened for parliamentary elections in Belarus which the opposition has largely boycotted and called on voters to stay home.
Voting opened at 8:00 am (1500 AEST) for 12 hours in the country of 9.5 million people. “Polling stations have opened in all of Belarus,” the state television presenter said on Belarus 1 channel.
All members of the 110-person body are now supporters of strongman President Alexander Lukashenko and most opposition parties have boycotted the polls in protest against what they say is an unfair process with predetermined result.
The election on Sunday must fill 110 seats in parliament, which long has been reduced to a rubber stamp by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Lukashenko’s landslide win in 2010 triggered a massive protest that authorities brutally suppressed, and any rallies after the parliamentary vote would be certain to draw a similar harsh response.
Censorship, attacks on activists and high numbers of political prisoners have marred “the worst campaign in the history of parliamentary polls”, United Civil Party leader Anatoly Lebedko told a news conference in Minsk.
The parliamentary polls are not expected to bring any surprises as the vast majority of candidates are loyal to strongman President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled with an iron fist since 1994.
“For the first time, many political organisations were prevented from carrying out any activities as early as six months ahead of the polls,” said Vitaly Rymashevsky, co-chairman of the unregistered Belarussian Christian Democratic Party.
Widespread alleged irregularities have led most opposition groups to withdraw their candidates from the race last week and urge a boycott of polls, only for the authorities to respond by arresting activists.
Activists from some groups have been arbitrarily detained so many times that they have gone into hiding, Rymashevsky said, while several administrators of Internet groups that called for the boycott have fled to Poland.
Amnesty International on Thursday slammed the “unprecedented deterioration in the human rights situation in Belarus” since Lukashenko cracked down on the opposition after disputed 2010 presidential polls.
Early voting, which opened on Tuesday and usually accounts for a large percentage of the turnout, has been marred by violations such as multiple voting by the same people, said Yury Gubarevich of the For Freedom movement.
“We see these ‘carousels’ every day,” Gubarevich told AFP, using a popular term for the practice of repeat voting which has been widely reported in Russia’s parliamentary and presidential polls.
“It’s a new thing for Belarus,” he said, adding that many observers had been harassed and prevented from doing their jobs.
For Freedom and several other opposition groups have assigned observers to every polling station in one Minsk district in order to find out the real turnout, which must reach 50 percent to make the polls valid.
Less than one percent of people involved in counting the votes come from opposition groups, prompting fears among Lukashenko’s critics and international monitoring groups that the tally can be easily manipulated.
“I would support ending the missions of international observers to Belarus,” said Lebedko, urging them to insist on electoral reform first.
“It’s time for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe to put up prerequisites for their visit: that the law be reformed to meet their standards,” he said.
None of Lukashenko’s critics was elected to the 110-member lower chamber in the last parliamentary polls in 2008.
Western observers have criticised all recent elections in Belarus as undemocratic.
The US and EU have imposed economic and travel sanctions on Lukashenko’s government over its crackdown on opposition groups and independent media.