World

Belarus Holds an Election, but the Outcome Is Not Hard to Predict

Amid a number of high-stakes elections to be held around the world this year, the East European nation of Belarus on Sunday offered an alternative to the unpredictability of democracy: a vote for Parliament without a single candidate critical of the country’s despotic leader.

Opposition parties have all been banned — belonging to one is a crime — and the four approved parties taking part in the election have competed only to outdo each other in their displays of unwavering loyalty to the country’s leader, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 30 years.

For the government, the election on Sunday — the first since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which neighbors Belarus to the south — is important as an opportunity to show Moscow, its ally, that it has snuffed out all domestic opposition and survived economic and other strains imposed by the war. Russia, which has in the past had doubts about Mr. Lukashenko’s durability and reliability, launched its invasion in February 2022 in part from Belarusian territory.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, an exiled opponent of Mr. Lukashenko, said: “These so-called elections are nothing more than a circus show. It’s not even entertaining.”

The Belarusian election is similar in format and predictability to a vote next month in Russia intended to anoint Mr. Putin for a fifth term in the Kremlin.

The European Union, which for years held out hope that Belarus, sandwiched between Russia and Poland, could be tugged out of the Kremlin’s orbit, has dismissed the whole process as a sham. The bloc’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, last week denounced Mr. Lukashenko’s “continued senseless violation of human rights and unprecedented level of repression ahead of the upcoming elections. Those responsible will be held to account.”

With the result of Sunday’s election — a Parliament stacked with supporters of Mr. Lukashenko — a foregone conclusion, the only uncertainty is turnout, and even that number will most likely be suspect, given Mr. Lukashenko’s stranglehold over the media and electoral process. Voting on the same day for local councils will yield a similarly predictable outcome.

Four parties loyal to the president are fielding candidates in the election: the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, Belaya Rus, and the Republican Party of Labor and Justice. Mr. Lukashenko is nominally an independent, like Mr. Putin in Russia.

Ms. Tikhanovskaya ran against Mr. Lukashenko in a 2020 presidential election, claimed victory and then fled to neighboring Lithuania at the start of a vicious crackdown on the president’s opponents carried out with help from Moscow. She has called on her supporters to boycott Sunday’s vote.

Urging voters to shun Lukashenko loyalists on the ballot, she offered an alternative, an A.I.-generated candidate called Yas, created by the opposition. “Frankly, he’s more real than any candidate the regime has to offer,” she said on social media, “And the best part? He cannot be arrested!”

To lift turnout, the Central Election Commission of Belarus allowed for four days of early voting. By the time polling stations opened on Sunday morning, the state news agency Belta reported, 43.6 percent of registered voters had already cast their ballots — more than halfway to the 77 percent turnout in the last parliamentary election, in 2019.

Belarusians who do not vote risk losing their jobs in state companies and institutions or being hauled in for questioning by the state security services, according to exiled opposition activists.

At the same time, Belarusians who live abroad and cannot be counted on not to spoil their ballots or write in the names of alternative candidates, have all been excluded. An election law adopted last year abolished polling stations abroad.

It is the first time that Belarus has held a national election since Mr. Lukashenko claimed an implausible landslide victory, his sixth in a row, with 80 percent of the vote against Ms. Tikhanovskaya and other rival candidates in the fraud-tainted 2020 presidential race.

Unlike that election, which allowed several opposition candidates on the ballot and was followed by huge street protests over falsified results, Sunday’s vote only offers a choice between different shades of regime loyalists. It has also been preceded by a wave of repression to forestall any risk of demonstrations. Photographing ballots, which helped provide evidence of widespread fraud in 2020, has been declared illegal.

The vote’s only significance, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an advocacy group, was as another grim marker that, after four years of arrests and a steady narrowing of already tightly constricted political space, “Belarus’s authoritarian regime has transformed itself into a totalitarian system.”

“No free and fair elections can take place in this environment of total repression,” the institute added.

Warning of “extremists” — the government’s catchall designation for dissidents in one of the world’s most repressive police states — Mr. Lukashenko this week ordered law enforcement agencies, including the K.G.B. security service of Belarus, an unreformed and brutal relic of past Soviet rule, to organize street patrols with small arms to ensure security.

As of this weekend, according to Viasna, a human rights group that monitors detentions, Belarus had 1,419 political prisoners, mostly people who were jailed after the election in 2020. They include leaders of disbanded opposition parties and the co-winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, Ales Bialiatski. Torture, both physical and psychological, according to human rights monitors, is commonplace in an archipelago of bleak prisons.

Belarus provided logistical support for Russia’s invading army and allowed its territory to be used as a staging ground for an abortive Russian thrust toward Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. But it has resisted pressure from Moscow to send its own troops into battle in Ukraine, one of the few things that Mr. Lukashenko has done that enjoys wide popular support.

Like Mr. Putin in Russia, Mr. Lukashenko has used the war in Ukraine to portray his country as a besieged fortress under threat from NATO and from domestic traitors. He has repeatedly claimed, baselessly, that Poland, a NATO member that controlled large stretches of what is now western Belarus before World War II, is massing troops in preparation for an attack to regain lost territory.

Ethnic Poles in the west of Belarus have been targeted in a sweeping crackdown, with Andrzej Poczobut, a prominent figure in the community, receiving an eight-year jail sentence last year for “inciting hatred” and “the rehabilitation of Nazism.”

The Belarusian defense minister, Viktor Khrenin, claimed this week in an interview with a Kremlin-controlled television station that Ukraine had assembled more than 110,000 soldiers on its border with Belarus. There is no evidence of that. He also threatened to shoot down “without warning” NATO aircraft that violated Belarusian airspace.

The saber rattling is largely aimed at a domestic audience, which Mr. Lukashenko needs to mobilize ahead of an election whose outcome is in no doubt but that could nonetheless prove embarrassing if not enough people vote. That prospect appears unlikely, experts say, given the risks of staying home.

Western election observers have been barred from Belarus, a ban that Sergei Lebedev, the head of an observer mission sent by the Commonwealth of Independent States, a largely moribund organization comprising Russia and seven other mostly authoritarian former Soviet republics, said was “logical and justified” because “there is no need to come here to look for some fictitious flaws and violations in organizing elections.”