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Belarus holds elections boycotted by opposition

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MINSK, Belarus — Belarus is holding parliamentary elections Sunday without the main opposition parties, which boycotted the vote to protest the detention of political prisoners and opportunities for election fraud.

The election is to fill 110 seats in parliament, which long has been reduced to a rubber stamp by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet nation since 1994. Western observers have criticized all recent elections in Belarus as undemocratic.

Lukashenko's landslide win in a 2010 presidential election triggered a mass street protest that was brutally suppressed, and any rallies after the parliamentary vote would be certain to draw a similar harsh response.

The opposition had hoped to use this election to build support, but 33 out of 35 candidates from the United Civil Party were barred from television, while the state-owned press refused to publish their election programs.

"We are calling on voters to ... ignore and boycott this electoral farce," said party leader Anatoly Lebedko. The other party boycotting the vote is the Belarusian Popular Front.

About 40 candidates from communist and leftist groups critical of Lukashenko are still running, but they aren't expected to make it into the parliament, which has been fully occupied by government loyalists since the last three opposition members lost their seats in 2004.

"Lukashenko has made the situation totally absurd, not even bothering to put a democratic facade on it," said Vitaly Rymashevsky, who ran against Lukashenko in the 2010 presidential election. "He already knows the names of the new parliament members."

The president, who speaks about his critics with contempt, said the opposition parties' withdrawal from the vote reflected their weakness. "They have shown they are nobodies," he said Friday.

The United States and the European Union have imposed economic and travel sanctions on the Belarusian government over its crackdown on opposition groups and independent news media.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has fielded 330 observers for Sunday's vote, but two monitors from the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly were denied entry to Belarus without explanation.

About a quarter of eligible voters cast their ballots during the week, taking part in early voting that was strongly promoted by the authorities. Ballot boxes stood unguarded at polling stations for days, which observers described as a source of potential fraud.

"They compiled lists of those who took part in the early voting and may punish those who disobeyed," said student Roman Gubarevich, who cast his ballot on Wednesday.

Lukashenko has intensified repression of the opposition since the 2010 presidential election, which triggered a mass protest against election fraud that was dispersed by police, who arrested about 700 people. Some are still in jail, including presidential candidate Nikolai Stankevich.

On Tuesday, plainclothes security officers beat an Associated Press photographer and briefly detained him along with seven other journalists as they covered a protest by four opposition activists calling for a boycott of the vote. The opposition activists have remained in custody.

An Australian television journalist was detained at the Minsk airport on Friday by authorities, who confiscated his camera, computer and all the material he had gathered during a week of reporting before the vote. The journalist, Amos Roberts of Australian SBS TV, left Belarus on Saturday, but left behind his equipment and it was not known whether it would be returned.

Given the relentless crackdown on dissent, observers don't expect any significant post-election protests.

"The opposition was routed in the repressions that followed the presidential vote, and it has no energy for a useless struggle with a predictable outcome," said Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent political analyst.

"It's the most senseless campaign in a decade, which neither the people, the government nor the opposition want," said Yaroslav Romanchuk of the Mises Foundation.