19 Dec 2010

Presidential elections in Belarus

8:01 am on 19 December 2010

Presidential elections begin on Sunday in the former Soviet republic of Belarus.

President Alexander Lukashenko is running for the post for the fourth time, having previously stifled any serious political opposition.

But the BBC reports he has promised open and fair elections this time.

Mr Lukashenko has governed the republic of 10 million people almost unchallenged since 1994.

Six years ago, he altered the constitution to allow him to run for an indefinite number of terms.

However, a sudden blossoming of civic freedom in Europe's "last dictatorship" as some call it - has caught a number of observers by surprise.

Opposition candidates have been allowed to make campaign broadcasts for the first time although they have been limited to one hour each for the course of the campaign.

State television also aired a debate among the nine candidates opposing Mr Lukashenko.

Since Mr Lukashenko did not show up, the nine challengers used their air time to gang up on him.

Candidates have also been able to make campaign broadcasts on national television openly attacking the government.

State-run economy

The BBC reports Mr Lukashenko is popular with large portions of the population, having preserved the subsidies and full-employment of the Soviet system. More than 70% of the economy remains in state hands.

Many factories keep producing to stay busy, but the goods they create are merely piling up, since export markets have disappeared.

However, some say that the pre-election political thaw is merely window-dressing, to curry favour with the West, but no real change is taking place.

If the elections are democratic, European Union officials have promised to lend the government 3 billion euros.

"Lukashenko needs this to show to the Europeans because he needs money from Europe," said Andrei Sannikov, one of the three main opposition candidates.

"The economy is in very bad shape and he needs additional credits. That's why he is pressed and he simply has to show something."

In the end, the BBC reports, most anticipate that the elections will produce the usual result: a Lukashenko victory.