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Belarus leader wins overwhelming vote for new term
Updated: 2004-10-18 14:47

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, accused in the west of flouting democratic norms, won overwhelming approval in a referendum to run for a third term in office, the top election official said Monday.

Lidiya Ermoshina, head of the Central Election Commission, said 77.3 percent of registered voters had backed Lukashenko's proposal to remove a constitutional provision limiting him to two terms. The vote will enable him to run again in 2006.

An elderly Belarus woman (L) gets help in filling in the ballot in a village of Eroshovka, some 32 miles southeast of Minsk, Oct. 17, 2004. [Reuters]
Lukashenko, who has run the ex-Soviet state since 1994, needed 50 percent of seven million voters -- not merely a majority of those voting Sunday -- to alter the constitution.

"These figures show a clear victory. The changes involved are of a fundamental nature and the figures show how important the referendum was for the country's stability," Ermoshina told a post-midnight news conference.

"A decision has been made by a considerable majority. I consider it an elegant victory which has consolidated our country and taught a lesson in patriotism to our young people."

She described the turnout of 90 percent as "unprecedented."

Lukashenko's liberal opponents, speaking long before the polls closed, said the vote was subject to unprecedented cheating and intimidation.

Voters were also choosing a new parliament where the opposition, subject to periodic crackdowns, hoped to win a few seats to chip away at Lukashenko's grip on power.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which had said the poll was threatened by a "climate of fear," a lack of debate and eroded media freedoms was to give its assessment Monday. It had 300 observers at polling stations.

The Soviet-era farm boss used referendums in 1996 to prolong his stay in power a first time and dissolve parliament. That and all elections since were denounced in the West as fraudulent.

As results came in from throughout the country, the extent of Lukashenko's victory became apparent.

Even the capital Minsk, where the hard-pressed opposition is strongest, gave 74 percent approval in the early counting, though not all residents were happy.

"This is nothing short of tragic," said Yuri, a late-night taxi driver. "He will now have all the power to put as much pressure as he likes on everyone. Everything will now be directed at winning the next election."

State television, held in check by authorities, had showed a succession of sports and cultural figures throughout the evening praising Lukashenko for ensuring stability and a measure of prosperity 13 years after the collapse of Soviet rule.

Lukashenko had appeared confident after casting his ballot, pledging to work hard if endorsed by voters and telling the West it had no business criticising his style of government.

Despite allegations of irregularities, the outcome reflects support for Lukashenko after a decade in power based on promises to restore certainties of the communist era.

Western countries accuse Lukashenko of hounding his opponents, interfering in the election process and closing down independent media outlets. They decry his refusal to abandon Soviet-style command economics.

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