Bulgaria joins in concern about Belarus elections

Bulgaria deplores the atmosphere of intimidation and pressure that accompanied the parliamentary elections held in Belarus on September 23 2012, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Vessela Tcherneva said

“We cannot fail to be concerned about whether there was compliance with international standards for free and fair voting by the citizens of a European country, in spite of the improvements identified in election laws,” Tcherneva said.

She said that Bulgaria noted the findings of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, that many of the obligations of OSCE membership were not met, such as the right of citizens to peaceful assembly and association and freedom of expression.

“In this context, in good faith we urge the leadership of the Republic of Belarus to meet its international commitments in regard to respect for democratic principles and norms. We would welcome any step in this direction and we are ready to share Bulgaria’s positive experiences,” she said.

The election produced a parliament filled with supporters of president Alexander Lukashenko after the two other main parties boycotted the vote. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994. The most recent presidential election in the country, two years ago, was widely rejected internationally and led to protests and widespread repression and arrests of opposition figures.

Many OSCE commitments on citizen’s democratic rights to associate, to stand as candidates and to express themselves freely were not respected in the September 23 parliamentary elections in Belarus,  international observers from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) concluded, the OSCE said on September 24.

The elections were not administered in an impartial manner and the complaints and appeals process did not guarantee effective remedy, the observers found.

“This election was not competitive from the start,” said Matteo Mecacci, Special Co-ordinator, who led the short-term OSCE observer mission. “A free election depends on people being free to speak, organise and run for office, and we didn’t see that in this campaign. We stand ready to work with Belarus to take the steps forward that are in our common interest.”

“The lack of neutrality and impartiality on the part of election commissions severely undermines public confidence in the process,” said Antonio Milošoski, head of the OSCE/ODIHR long-term election observation mission. “Citizens should feel confident that their votes are counted as cast, but the lack of proper counting procedures or ways for observers to verify the results raises serious concerns.”

While there was an increase in the number of candidates put forward by parties, prominent political figures who might have played a role remained in prison or were not eligible to register because of their criminal record. Arbitrary administrative decisions also constrained the field of contestants, limiting voters’ choices.

Despite improvements made to the electoral law in amendments in 2010 and 2011, the legal framework does not adequately guarantee the conduct of elections in line with OSCE commitments and international standards, the OSCE said.

“On a positive note, political parties could, for the first time, nominate candidates in constituencies where they maintained no regional office, increasing the number of political party nominations. Nonetheless, overly technical application of the law resulted in the exclusion of one in four nominees,” according to the OSCE.

The election campaign was barely visible throughout the four-week campaign, the observers found. Although the Belarus constitution guarantees freedom of expression and there is a high number of media outlets, coverage of the campaign did not provide a wide range of views. Candidates who called for an election boycott had their free access to media coverage denied or censored. Media coverage focused on the president and government, with minimal attention given to candidates, the observers said.

While early voting and election day procedures were assessed positively, the process deteriorated considerably during the count, the OSCE said. A significant number of observers were not given a meaningful opportunity to observe the count and evaluated the process negatively in a significant number of the polling stations observed. The continued lack of properly delineated counting procedures meant that an honest count could not be guaranteed, the observers said.

On September 24, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and European Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Štefan Füle said that elections “represent yet another missed opportunity to conduct elections in line with international standards inBelarus”.

The statement said that the EU had followed closely developments during the pre-electoral period and on election day. There were some improvements in the electoral process, such as an improved Electoral Code, but regrettably the elections took place against the background of an overall climate of repression and intimidation, the joint statement said

“We note the ODIHR’s assessment that the elections were not administered in an impartial manner, with key OSCE commitments not fully respected, including citizens’ rights to associate, to stand as candidates and to express themselves freely.

“We encourage the authorities to take steps to fully implement Belarus’ international commitments to democratic principles and human rights, and stand ready to assist Belarus to this end,” Ashton and Füle said.

The Voice of America reported that United States state department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said the vote fell short of international standards for a free and fair election. She said if Belarus wants improved relations with the US, it must respect human rights, free political prisoners, and take steps to hold genuinely democratic elections.




The Sofia Globe staff

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