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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Belarus President Wins by Landslide

MINSK, Belarus -- President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus claimed overwhelming victory Monday in a constitutional referendum that offers him virtually unlimited powers, leaving all but impotent election observers and opponents to cry foul.

A triumphant Lukashenko announced that he now regarded his new constitution as being in force, after the Central Election Commission said 70.5 percent of voters had supported the president in the referendum, against a mere 7.9 percent for parliament.

Among other things, Lukashenko's four referendum questions propose extending his term in office by two years and vastly extending his powers. Parliament, among its three questions, had called for the abolition of the presidency.

"My opponents now have little justification. The people have expressed their opinion," Lukashenko told a press conference at the election commission after the vote was counted. "We must subordinate ourselves to the will of the people."

Election observers cited polling violations, with a Ukrainian delegation reporting 1,000 in the Brest region alone. Opposition leaders denounced the vote as a farce.

"There can be no doubt about the illegality of this referendum," Viktor Gonchar, nominal head of the election commission, told The Moscow Times on Monday. "The results have been falsified." Gonchar was forced out of his office by Lukashenko last Thursday.

Russia welcomed the result as "normal."

"The main thing is that Belarus has given its assessment," said Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. "I think it's a normal result. It's a mat mandate to introduce his new constitution, under which he would create a new, tame, upper chamber of parliament and reform both the Constitutional Court and the Central Election Commission.

The vote also gives him a mandate to stop all sales of land, retain the death penalty, and change the national holiday to mark July 3, 1944 -- the day Soviet troops liberated Belarus from German occupation.

Lukashenko said he would not, however, simply disband parliament and the Constitutional Court as he threatened at various times in the lead-up to the referendum.

He said he was willing to work with the current Supreme Soviet, which is set to meet Tuesday to decide what to do, if they "express their good will" by ratifying the constitution.

As for the Constitutional Court, Lukashenko said many of the judges might be appointed to a new 12-person court, provided they dropped their "political bias."

The court also is due to meet Tuesday to decide whether to go ahead with impeachment proceedings against the president. But sources close to the court said the narrow majority of judges that favored impeachment last Friday has since disappeared, after the court's chairman switched sides under pressure from the president.

"Belarus has been effectively destroyed. There can be no talk of a political future for Belarus," Gonchar said. "The future is entirely in the hands of Lukashenko."

Despite the indignation of opposition politicians, the pro-democracy demonstration that occupied part of the square outside parliament since violent clashes a week ago had melted away by Monday morning.

"What's the point of demonstrating, even voting?" said Vadim Kondrachuk, an activist for the nationalist Belarus Populist Front, as he prepared to leave the demonstration. "A dictator always gets his way."

According to election commission figures, Lukashenko has every right to be delighted. Turnout over the two weeks the polls have been open was a stunning 84 percent, making his land slide victory all the more impressive.

Few outside the Lukashenko camp, however, were taking the election commission's figures at face value.

"These figures defy basic arithmetic," Sergei Kolyakin, head of the mostly anti-Lukashenko Communist parliamentary faction told a press conference Monday.

"In Minsk, 53 percent of the voters supposedly cast their ballots between 6 and 10 p.m. last night. But in the parliamentary by-elections [conducted simultaneously with Sunday's referendum, in the same polling stations], only 8.9 percent voted between those times.

"Between 20 and 50 percent of the votes have been falsified," Kolyakin said. "This is a question that the public prosecutor must address."Brian Cassidy, a member of the European parliamentary ad hoc observers' commission, cited serious irregularities in the lead-up to the voting, particularly an almost total lack of air time given to the opposition on the state-controlled media.

A report prepared by the European Institute for the Media said, "The number of minutes [of all referendum broadcasts since Nov. 9] was precisely zero."

Last Friday, it had looked as though Lukashenko would agree to make his referendum "consultative" rather than binding. But hopes for such a compromise were dashed Friday night, when the deal signed by Lukashenko and parliament leader Semyon Sharetsky, as well as Chernomyrdin, failed to gain approval in the Supreme Soviet.

While nationalist and some other opposition deputies balked at the deal, it appears to have been doomed by a Lukashenko-backed maneuver in which his 80 loyal deputies abstained from the vote. As a result, ratification became all but impossible and Lukashenko was able to blame it on "parliamentary stubbornness."

Sharetsky made a dramatic appeal Monday for the international community, and Russia in particular, "not to allow this creeping dictatorship to take hold."

"Lukashenko's favorite example of government is Germany in the 1930s. His style of government is following the same patterns as Hitler's," said Sharetsky, referring to a radio interview last year when Lukashenko expressed admiration for Nazi Germany. Lukashenko's deputy, Vladimir Zemletalin, called the interview a "falsified provocation" after it was replayed on Russian television Sunday, ORT reported.