. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Voting Opens Over Belarus Referendum

Combined Reports

Polling stations opened in Belarus on Saturday for voters to cast their ballots on proposed constitutional changes that have become a battleground between the president and parliament in the former Soviet republic.

Although the referendum on expanding the constitutional powers of President Alexander Lukashenko was scheduled for Nov. 24, electoral law in Belarus provides for the opening of polling stations two weeks in advance to allow people to vote, in case they cannot on the designated day.

Lukashenko and the Belarussian parliament have been locked in a bitter fight over the referendum. On Tuesday, the parliament -- backed by a court ruling -- voted that the referendum would not be legally binding.

However, Lukashenko signed a decree Thursday overruling that decision and threatened to dissolve parliament and the court if they opposed him, a presidential aide said on television.

"[The decree] cancels, suspends the illegal decision of the [parliament] and the ruling of the constitutional court. From today they do not apply," said Mikhail Sazonov, first deputy head of Lukashenko's administration.

In the decree, Lukashenko accused the court and Belarussian parliament of violating the existing constitution and denying citizens the right to change it.

The court had earlier said the constitutional referendum could go ahead, but would not be binding, because the proposed changes were so radical.

Lukashenko also threatened to halt the activities of any state bodies which attempted to obstruct the referendum.

"I am sure the parliament, deputies are intelligent enough not to block the referendum," Sazonov said. "If anyone, any state body, interferes with the referendum, the activity of that body will be suspended."

However, parliamentarians vowed that they would not be intimidated by threats from the increasingly authoritarian president.

"He went right over the top. It's completely wild and will bring nothing good. It is a primitive decision," Vasily Novikov, parliament's first deputy speaker, said.

Newspapers published the seven questions put forward in the referendum Saturday, in which some 7.5 million people were registered to vote.

The proposed constitutional amendments would extend Lukashenko's term to seven years and give him the right to disband parliament, appoint judges, election officials, some legislators and most members of the constitutional court.

Lawmakers have added their own referendum questions, some of which would effectively eliminate the presidency. ()