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Page last updated at 13:30 GMT, Friday, 26 September 2008 14:30 UK

Q&A: Belarus elections

President Alexander Lukashenko. File photo
Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994

Belarus goes to the polls on 28 September, electing deputies to the lower chamber of parliament - the House of Representatives.

Despite signs of a thaw in relations with the West and Minsk's efforts to demonstrate democratic standards, the election is unlikely to challenge President Alexander Lukashenko.

Does parliament have an important role to play?

President Lukashenko has effectively reduced the House of Representatives to a rubber stamp by limiting its power. All 110 seats are currently occupied by supporters of Mr Lukashenko.

Nominally, the lower chamber has the right to throw out bills, impeach the president and reject prime-ministers-designate nominated by the president.

What of the opposition?

The opposition has united into two blocs for the election. Most opposition groups boycotted the 2000 election but stood for parliament in 2004 - with no success.

Pro-democracy forces have little or no access to state mass media and there are no independent TV or radio stations available in Belarus that carry unbiased news, apart from the Polish-funded satellite TV channel Belsat, which is watched by few Belarussians.

How does the electoral system work?

Deputies are elected for a four-year term in a first-past-the-post system in 110 single-seat constituencies.

Winning candidates must poll more than half the votes cast in their constituency. If not, run-off elections are held within two weeks between the two leading candidates.

Polling stations are open in the run-up to polling day (23-27 September). International observers view this practice as a vote-rigging technique.

Who is standing?

Most of the opposition hopefuls managed to secure registration. There are 276 candidates on the official list, including 83 members of political parties.

A total of 99 candidates were either formally or informally linked with the opposition. Nearly 50 opposition hopefuls failed to pass the registration stage.

Prominent opposition politicians who are standing include United Civic Party leader Anatoly Lebedko, Party of Communists of Belarus leader Sergei Kalyakin, Belarussian Social Democratic Party (Hramada) leader Anatoly Levkovich and former Belarussian head of state Stanislav Shushkevich.

Pro-government contenders include the deputy head of the presidential administration, Alexander Popkov, Vitebsk region governor Vladimir Andreichenko, Belarussian Railways chief Vladimir Zharelo and Mogilev region Deputy Governor Anatoly Glaz.

What are the political parties?

Nine parties are contesting the polls.

The parties loyal to the authorities are the Communist Party of Belarus (12 candidates), the Liberal Democratic Party (nine), the Republican Party of Labour and Justice (three) and the Belarussian Agrarian Party (one).

The opposition consists of the United Civic Party (23 candidates), the BPF-Revival Party (14), the Belarussian Social Democratic Party (Hramada) (11), the Party of Communists of Belarus (14).

There are two opposition blocs. The larger of these, the United Democratic Forces, represents a diverse spectrum of political ideas. Its driving force is the United Civic Party, which has opposed proposals to boycott the election and said it will focus on monitoring the vote count.

The unofficial European Coalition campaigns for Belarussian accession to the EU and advocates social-democratic values. It has registered 22 candidates but its leader Nikolai Statkevich has been barred from standing.

What do opinion polls suggest?

Independent polls show fairly low support for any individual political force and a traditionally high proportion of voters disappointed in both government and opposition.

A survey by Belarus' most respected independent pollster suggested 39.6% would vote for Lukashenko-backed candidates, and 17.7% for the opposition.

Some 31.4% said they would support candidates other than those backed by the president or the opposition, which is hardly an option.

What about the campaign and polling?

The campaign has been lacklustre. Election coverage in the official media has been limited to repetitive reports from the Central Electoral Commission and bland five-minute addresses by candidates on local television and radio.

The biggest scandal was the decision of five United Civic Party candidates in Minsk to withdraw over publishers' refusals to produce their campaign leaflets, which the party regards as government meddling in the election.

The opposition and human rights watchdogs say the vote will be neither free nor fair.

They point out that the public will not be able to monitor the vote count as representatives of pro-democracy forces account for just 0.07% of personnel involved in the count at polling stations and 3% of staff in district electoral commissions.

Electoral Commission chief Lidia Yarmoshyna has repeatedly stated that Belarus will do its best to hold the election in full compliance with OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) standards.

What does the world think?

The EU and US have welcomed signs of change in Belarus, such as the release of opposition figure Alexander Kozulin and two other activists from jail in the run-up to the poll.

The US has suspended economic sanctions against two Belarussian exporters and said it is considering other goodwill gestures.

The EU has also held high-level consultations on the possibility of lifting sanctions against Belarus.

Russia has stuck to its traditional laissez-faire approach, regarding the election as a domestic Belarussian matter.

Will there be observers?

Belarus has invited hundreds of foreign observers, and a total of 205 are registered by the electoral commission.

As many as 522 more international observers have applied to monitor the election nearer polling day, including 300 OSCE short-term monitors.

The Moscow-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States is also planning to dispatch up to 300 observers.

BBC Monitoring selects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaux abroad.



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