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Last Updated: Saturday, 16 October, 2004, 08:47 GMT 09:47 UK
Q&A: Belarus votes
President Lukashenko on the campaign trail
Mr Lukashenko aims to tighten his grip

Belarus goes to the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament and to decide in a referendum whether President Alexander Lukashenko, dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by the US State Department, can stand for a third term in 2006.

Q: What does the referendum ask?

Do you allow the first president of the Republic of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, to stand in the presidential elections?

Q: How is it justified?

Announcing the move, Mr Lukashenko said: "For years I have been carrying this crystal vase called Belarus with the greatest care... I am afraid to drop it, for it is too fragile and vulnerable... I would not like irresponsible politicians to get their hands on the beauty we have created".

Q: Has he held a referendum before?

In 1996 Mr Lukashenko used one to dissolve a dissenting parliament and to amend the constitution. This restricted parliament's powers and allowed him to extend his first term.

Q: What's the procedure?

A majority of all registered voters is required to change the constitution, so Mr Lukashenko needs more than 3.5 million people to vote yes in the referendum.

A simple majority and a minimum turnout of 50% plus one vote are needed for candidates to be elected to parliament.

7m eligible to vote
Referendum to cost $186,000
110 MPs to be elected
406 candidates registered
692 candidates applied

Polling stations are open for six hours daily from 12-16 October for anyone wishing to vote early.

The practice, used previously by Mr Lukashenko, is seen by observers as a way of manipulating the vote.

Q: What are the logistics?

There are about seven million eligible voters. A total of 167 local election commissions will oversee voting at 6,659 polling stations.

The Central Electoral Commission says the referendum will cost 400m rubles ($186,000).

Q: What does the opposition think?

The opposition have condemned what they call a bid to enshrine a "presidency for life" and turn Belarus into an "absolute monarchy".

Opposition parties launched a "Say No to Lukashenko" campaign and staged protests. And there have been calls for a boycott.

Q: What does the West think?

The US State Department and EU foreign ministers have warned that a flawed referendum will damage ties and further isolate Belarus.

Mr Lukashenko responded by accusing the West of interference and plotting to oust him.

Q: What does Russia think?

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko has said it is "up to the Belarusian people" to decide.

Q: What do opinion polls say?

State media report almost universal support for Mr Lukashenko. But a survey by Belarusian independent pollster Novak and Lithuania's Gallup Organisation says 53% oppose lifting the two-term limit.

Just 26.2% said they would vote for Mr Lukashenko in a presidential election.

Q: How does the general election fit in?

The parliamentary poll is expected to tighten Mr Lukashenko's grip.

While the opposition has managed to unite, its chances of challenging the pro-presidential parties are deemed slim.

The first-past-the-post system, a central election authority loyal to the president and recent clampdowns on the independent press all favour the president.

Q: How does parliament work?

The lower house has the power to throw out bills and even impeach the president. In practice the president can count on a chamber of staunch supporters.

Mr Lukashenko regards MPs more as civil servants than elected representatives. He lectures them on their duties and harangues them if they dissent.

The president can disband the lower house if it votes no-confidence in the government or rejects a prime minister-designate twice.

Q: How does voting work?

The lower house has 110 members elected for a four-year term.

The system is first-past-the-post, with no proportional representation. The seven-million electorate is divided into 110 constituencies.

To win, candidates must poll more than 50% of votes on a turnout of 50% plus one. Runoffs, if needed, are held within two weeks between the two frontrunners.

Q: Who is standing?

The Central Electoral Commission says 406 candidates were registered out of 692 applicants.

A member of the liberal Yabloko party prepares to protest
Lukashenko is accused of stifling dissent

Just 186 of these are members of political parties. The opposition has accused the authorities of using technicalities to filter out rivals.

Among the party candidates, 38 represent the pro-Lukashenko Liberal Democratic Party and five the pro-Lukashenko Communist Party of Belarus.

The opposition lines up as follows: the United Civic Party - 37 candidates, the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (People's Hramada) - 28, the BPF-Revival Party - 30, the Party of Communists of Belarus - 30, and the Belarusian Social Democratic Hramada - 11.

Two minor parties secured registration for three and four candidates respectively.

In addition, some opposition candidates have set up three "election blocs".

Q: What of the campaign?

Candidates were entitled to five minutes of free time on state radio and TV. And they could publish manifestos free of charge in national papers.

But the opposition was up against pro-presidential broadcasts and a barrage of anti-opposition propaganda.

Q: What of opinion polls?

An independent survey in June/July revealed that only 36.7% were ready to vote for Lukashenko-backed candidates, while 45.8% said they would vote against them.

But most polls suggest support for the opposition still falls far short of a majority.

Q: Will there be observers?

The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have said they are sending about 400 observers.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

Belarus votes in key referendum
12 Oct 04  |  Europe
Belarus leader calls referendum
07 Sep 04  |  Europe
Belarus officials face EU-US ban
28 Sep 04  |  Europe
Profile: Alexander Lukashenko
10 Jul 04  |  Europe
Country profile: Belarus
08 Mar 02  |  Country profiles

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