- Exit poll gives incumbent 80% of vote amid slow economy
- Russia, EU, U.S. vie for influence in former Soviet republic
Alexander Lukashenko will retain power in Belarus into his third decade, a government-commissioned exit poll showed after a presidential election in which economic distress at home took a back seat to competing priorities in foreign policy.
Lukashenko, 61, received 80.3 percent of vote, enough to avoid a runoff, according to a government-sanctioned exit poll by the Eurasian Barometer Institute, presented at an election commission news conference in Minsk on Sunday. Election-day surveys other than those accredited by the government aren’t allowed. Pro-democracy political newcomer Tatiana Korotkevich, the first woman ever to run for the presidency in Belarus was the closest challenger with 5.6 percent of the vote. Turnout was 81.8% as of 6 p.m. the electoral commission said on its website. Polling stations closed at 8 p.m. Preliminary results will probably be made public later tonight.
Belarus, wedged between Russia and Poland, is at risk of becoming another geopolitical battleground as the Kremlin wrangles with its former Cold War rivals from Ukraine to Syria. Lukashenko, Europe’s longest-serving leader, who’s been in power since 1994, campaigned with the goal of “normalizing” ties with the U.S. and Europe and pushed back against plans by President Vladimir Putin -- his closest ally -- to set up a military air base in Belarus.
"Everything that the West wished, everything that it wanted to see on the eve of the presidential elections in Belarus, I confess frankly, we did it all,” Lukashenko said after he cast his vote at a polling station in Minsk, according to his press service. “If the West has any intention to develop relations with us, nobody and nothing stands in its way.”
Sergei Gaidukevich, who unsuccessfully ran in previous elections, got 5.1 percent and self-described “cossack” Nikolai Ulakhovich received 1.9 percent, while 7.1 percent of voters chose the “against all” option, according to the exit poll. Two other surveys also showed Lukashenko with at least 80 percent.
“For the first time, no real opposition candidate challenges the incumbent, so the official voting results are easy to predict,” Imke Hansen, an associate professor at Sweden’s Uppsala University specializing in eastern European history, said in an interview in Minsk. “This may help Lukashenko in his quest for more acceptance in the West as he is increasingly wary of his country being seen in the world as a small tail which Russia wags.”
After a campaign international observers called “largely invisible,” a state-sanctioned poll showed Lukashenko’s support at more than 76 percent. The Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies in Lithuania found backing for Lukashenko near 46 percent in early October, short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.
To coax the electorate into polling booths, authorities in the capital will deploy 550 food stands, which besides selling refreshments will offer awards and gifts to voters, state-run Belta news service reported.
Belarus, a nation of 9.5 million that borders three European Union nations and whose main exports include potash, tractors and refined oil products such as gasoline, is reeling from the crisis in neighboring Russia, its biggest trade partner. Lukashenko has sought to take the focus off the $76 billion economy, warning in his election program that “not everyone is happy with our independence.”
Demand for Belarusian assets is returning after the rout that swept emerging markets in August. Its national currency, this year’s second-worst performer globally after Zambia’s kwacha, has strengthened more than 3 percent against the dollar this week. The yield on dollar-denominated government debt due 2018 has dropped in six of the past seven days. It was at 8.42 percent on Friday, down from August’s high of 10.57 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Lukashenko has had to walk a fine line as a separatist insurgency in Ukraine and sanctions against Putin’s government roiled the region. Belarus, which like Russia is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, is attempting to hedge its bets as it looks to rev up an economy that the International Monetary Fund predicts will contract the most of any ex-Soviet state in 2016.
Diplomatic relations with the U.S. and its allies have intensified this year, highlighted by the Ukraine peace conference in Minsk attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in February. French President Francois Hollande also attended the truce talks, along with Putin and Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko.
As Belarus seeks a $3 billion credit from the Russian-led Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development, Lukashenko said he’d already secured $7 billion in loans from China and met with IMF chief Christine Lagarde last month to discuss a possible new program.
Belarus, which has struggled to remove travel bans and asset freezes imposed against some companies and top officials by the EU and the U.S., has tried to improve relations by releasing all political prisoners earlier this year. The EU will probably lift its sanctions for four months after Sunday’s election, Reuters reported, citing diplomats it didn’t identify.
“Lukashenko is in a difficult position,” Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday, said at a briefing in Minsk after the announcement. “He’d like to break away from Russia, but who will let him?”
The question remains if the presidential vote could add momentum to those efforts. The U.S. rejected as illegitimate Lukashenko’s re-election in 2010, joining European criticism of a crackdown on activists and other presidential candidates. Belarus has one of the worst “democracy scores” among 29 eastern European and central Asian nations tracked by Freedom House, a Washington-based group that advocates democracy and human rights.
The opposition, which suffered years of jailings and harassment and has few outlets where it can make itself heard, has struggled to gain traction. It’s been further sidelined by the crisis in Ukraine, with most Belarusians leery of stoking political instability.
“The government has falsified even the ballot form which contains not a single name of an opposition candidate,” Nikolai Statkevich, a former political prisoner who ran against Lukashenko in the 2010 presidential election, told a rally in Minsk on Saturday evening.
The gathering led by opponents of the president drew only about 2,000 participants in the country’s capital city of 1.9 million people, with the police this time choosing not to break up the protests.
The electorate remains sanguine. More than 71 percent of Belarusians say they aren’t ready to take part in public protests, according to the survey by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies.
Some of the shortcomings that marked previous elections still plague Belarus, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
“Disproportionate legal restrictions of fundamental freedoms impact on the campaign environment,” observers from the OSCE said in a report. “The rights of citizens or public associations wishing to address electoral issues in public meetings remain restricted.”