Lukashenko's Rival Had No Chance

MINSK, Belarus -- It's election time in Belarus, though it may be hard to notice it at first. There are almost no posters in the capital and even fewer in the provinces. Street campaigning is low-key and concentrated on the main avenue. And only a few banners in the colors of the national flag stretched above the same street remind people that Sunday they are choosing a president.

Their winner is already known -- the incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, known for his heavy-handed, Soviet-style government.

His only serious opponent -- Vladimir Goncharik -- stands little chance even of getting through to a second round, thanks to total governmental control over the electronic media, persistent intimidation of a weak opposition and election laws that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe says allow fraud.

The election will be Lukashenko's first since he won the presidency in a landslide seven years ago in a vote seen as free and fair. Sunday's vote, however, is seen by most observers as neither.

"There is an all-pervasive atmosphere of intimidation here," Hriar Balian, who heads a team of OSCE election observers, said in an interview last week. "The opposition campaign activists are getting arrested, their materials confiscated, the press is under constant pressure. This doesn't bode well for any election process."

It only takes a short drive out of the capital to see the mechanisms of intimidation at work. In the small town of Stolbtsy, some 70 kilometers west of Minsk, a group of young opposition activists tried on Aug. 29 to call the public's attention to the disappearances of several Lukashenko opponents. They were allowed to stand in the pouring rain with portraits of the disappeared for just five minutes before being overwhelmed by a dozen policemen, most in plainclothes.

Pushed roughly into a minivan, they were rushed to the police station and kept for eight hours before being fined for "demonstrating without permission." In the meantime, posters and stickers inviting the people of Stolbtsy to a sanctioned meeting with Goncharik the following day disappeared from the activists' van.

The independent press has been suppressed. With no independent electronic news media in Belarus, the independent newspapers were, until recently, the only source of uncensored information.

In late August, the privately owned printing house Magic, which prints the most influential independent newspapers, was accused of owing back taxes and was closed. Soon, it was allowed to resume printing, but a member of the State Press Committee was installed as acting director. His main role, it turned out, was not to make sure the taxes were paid, but to control what the newspapers printed there were publishing. One has since appeared with large white spaces in place of censored articles.

Lukashenko has made his position clear. The state "may have relaxed its control over the media lately and allowed them to wreak havoc. But we should be patient. ... They'll answer for it after the elections," the independent Belarussian Association of Journalists quoted him as saying Wednesday.

Lukashenko is the inescapable hero of every television news program, where he comes off as a great statesmen and a man of the people who knows everything about everything -- from soccer to the economy. He speaks in simple, understandable language, criticizes his bureaucrats mercilessly and has fired and even personally arrested some of them in front of the TV cameras. People credit him with pensions and salaries arriving on time. They see him as the main guarantor of stability and protection from the kind of market reforms that have impoverished so many in Russia.

After extending his powers in a controversial constitutional referendum in 1996, Lukashenko has kept a firm grip on all essential levers of power in the country. Every important official -- starting with the heads of the regions and judges and ending with the heads of big state companies -- is appointed by the president personally. The parliament -- chosen last year in an election boycotted by the opposition -- is little more than a voting machine to adopt the president's laws. The most controversial measures come in the form of presidential decrees.

Yet Lukashenko is a genuinely popular leader and has little to fear from Goncharik.

"One of Lukashenko's main strengths is the weakness of his opponents," said Alexander Feduta, an independent political analyst and a one-time Lukashenko insider. "They are used to losing. Worse still, they are used to making their living by losing and remaining the eternal opposition."

The air in Minsk is thick with talk of bickering opposition leaders using grants from Western governments for personal enrichment. Lukashenko has accused the United States and other Western governments of interfering in the election by funding the opposition.

But the opposition's biggest sin, said Feduta, is its failure to come up with a serious alternative to Lukashenko.

The unified opposition is a motley crew of parties that in any other political circumstances would find themselves on different sides of the fence, from communists nostalgic for the Soviet Union to hard-line Belarussian nationalists. The coalition came up with Goncharik as a consensus candidate only after some public squabbling.

Their main tactic has been to convince people not that Goncharik is good, but that Lukashenko is bad. "Our main aim is to show Lukashenko's real face," Vasily Leonov, the head of Goncharik's campaign staff, said in an interview. "We started working on Goncharik's image only after he was registered in August."

This image-making included a poster of Goncharik, 61, in a bright blue suit and unskillfully made up in an attempt to make him look younger. Goncharik also promised Belarussians salaries reaching $400 a month in the next five years, but with average salaries now less than $100, this promise seemed nothing but a pipe dream, and it backfired.

"First I thought I'd vote for anybody but Lukashenko," said Dmitry, 27, from the town of Asipovichi, some 100 kilometers south of Minsk. "Now I understand that he is the only real candidate. The rest are simply not serious, promising things we all know are impossible."

Even if Belarussians decide to vote for a change, the election system will make it easy to tamper with results, said observers. The two main points of concern are the early voting, which started Tuesday, and the process of counting the ballots, said Balian of the OSCE.

The ballots from the early vote will be kept at the polls until Sunday with no independent observers allowed to oversee them overnight, Balian said. In Belarus, the early ballots account for more of the vote than in other countries in the region, where it usually reaches 1 percent. In the first two days it had reached 4 percent, Interfax reported Thursday.

The other problem, Balian said, is the vote tabulation, because the government has made it practically impossible for opposition representatives to be present in all but the initial stages of vote counting.

"So I will not be able to say that fraud was or wasn't committed," Balian said. "All I can say is the law permits fraud."

The opposition has urged citizens to join a mass rally in Minsk after the polls close Sunday , either to defend their victory or protest Lukashenko's win.

Lukashenko has said he will not permit a "Yugoslav scenario" in Minsk, a reference to the uprising that toppled the Yugoslav president after an election last year.

Alexander Sosnov of the Independent Institute of Social Economic and Political Studies in Minsk said as many as 11 percent of the people say they would be willing to take to the streets if they felt cheated.

"But these are just words, and words are cheap," said Sosnov. "Belarussians are patient and tolerant people and can take a lot. I don't believe there will be big street protests here. Nations don't change that quickly."