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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Belarus Parliament Launches Impeachment Bid

Combined Reports

MINSK, Belarus -- A constitutional battle in Belarus intensified Friday, with parliament deputies launching a bid to impeach President Alexander Lukashenko and police attempting to oust the electoral commission chief from his office.

Meanwhile, Lukashenko called on voters to cast their ballots early in a controversial referendum aimed at broadening his powers.

Following a ruling by the Constitutional Court on Friday that Lukashenko had exceeded his powers when he fired election commission chief Viktor Gonchar for defying him over the referendum, parliamentary faction leaders began collecting signatures to launch impeachment proceedings.

In a joint statement parliamentarians accused Lukashenko of "usurping power and installing a dictatorship under the cover of a referendum."

Lukashenko, who has been feuding with parliament for months, has insisted on pushing through the Nov. 24 referendum, which effectively asks Belarussians to choose between the president and parliament.

"It is clear that Mr. Lukashenko has taken the path of anti-constitutional decisions and that nothing will stop him," the statement said.

Lukashenko, speaking at a rally of 12,000 people in the northeastern town of Mogilev, told voters to "vote early if possible" in the referendum.

"I do not know what the opposition will try next after the dismissal of one of its number," he said in a reference to the firing of the electoral commission chief.

Communist leader and deputy Sergei Kolyakin said Belarus police and presidential guards Friday tried to oust Gonchar from his office in Minsk, after he returned to his office insisting that parliament alone had the right to dismiss him.

Deputies on the scene said Gonchar remained in his office after parliament speaker Semyon Sharetsky and prosecutor general Vasily Kapitan turned up and interrupted the police operation.

Some deputies who tried to intervene were hit by police surrounding the commission's headquarters, Russian ORT television said.

Interfax reported that about 150 supporters of the opposition Belarussian Popular Front had gathered outside the commission to protest the dismissal.

Lukashenko fired Gonchar on Thursday after the commission chairman said he would not validate the outcome of the constitutional referendum.

On Tuesday, Gonchar said there had been many breaches of the electoral rules in the preparations for the referendum. He singled out arrangements for voters to cast their ballots early if they were unable to vote on the day of the poll He said he would refuse to certify the results of the referendum.

Gonchar said the electoral commission did not know how many ballot slips had been printed -- a key figure used in checking for election fraud in countries of the former Soviet Union -- because they had been printed by the presidency and sent directly to polling stations.

To impeach Lukashenko, 70 deputies' signatures are needed for the constitutional court to begin assessing whether the president's actions conform with the constitution.

If the court then judges the president's actions to be anti-constitutional, his powers are suspended pending a parliament vote on his impeachment. A two-thirds majority is needed to strip him of his powers.

Previously, communist deputies have shown reluctance to launch impeachment proceedings against Lukashenko, a former communist apparatchik who has adopted an increasingly authoritarian style since his election in July 1994.

However, the fact that the communist leader announced the collection of signatures suggested some of them, at least, now favored the impeachment of Lukashenko.

Lukashenko insists the referendum will have force of law, but the Constitutional Court says it will not, because the proposed constitutional changes are so radical. Parliament has called for the presidency to be scrapped, and human rights groups have accused Lukashenko of muzzling the opposition. ()