By Stefan J. Bos
The Belarusian leader appeared ready for battle with reporters when he cast his ballot for Sunday’s parliamentary poll in the capital Minsk.
Soon after voting, he defended his solid grip on power and his perceived crackdown on the opposition. Questions have been raised over how much longer his authoritarian rule can last.
Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss, has ruled the nation of 10 million with an iron fist since 1994, suppressing dissent and independent news media and retaining elements of a Soviet-style economy.
But the Belarusian leader said he is ready for the presidential election in 2020. Speaking to reporters, President Lukashenko made clear he plans to run for reelection next year. He also defended the way Sunday’s parliamentary vote was organized.
The West has criticized the elections because many opposition candidates were excluded. But Lukashenko said he is not worrying about the criticism. In his words, his administration “isn’t playing at some kind of democracy.”
Some voters appreciate Lukashenko’s iron grip on the economy. But others view the stability that Lukashenko claims as overrated and express concerns about the future of this former Soviet republic.
In Sunday’s election, 516 candidates were contesting 110 parliament seats. The opposition says the procedure is fraught with abuse because ballot boxes are unguarded, and the vote count is done without the presence of observers.
Last week, an independent observer filmed a woman trying to stuff ballots into a box at a polling station in Brest. But the Election
Commission chief who has held the job for 23 years said the observer should be stripped of his accreditation.
The United States and the European Union have criticized continuously Belarusian authorities for rigged elections and crackdowns on the opposition, introducing sanctions against Lukashenko’s government.
But some of those penalties have been lifted in recent years as Belarus freed political prisoners.
Belarus also hosted peace negations on ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where fighting between government forces and pro-Russian separatists killed at least 13,000 people.
President Lukashenko has recently tried to reach out to the West during tense times with nearby Russia.
Moscow has recently introduced higher prices for its oil supplies, dealing a heavy blow to Belarus.
President Lukashenko has criticized the price hike as part of the Kremlin’s efforts to force Belarus into a closer alliance.