Belarus polls under scrutiny as strongman reaches out to West

MINSK - Belarusians voted in parliamentary polls on Sunday with critics already condemning the election as fraudulent despite strongman President Alexander Lukashenko's efforts to reach out to the West.

Lukashenko -- who has been dubbed "Europe's last dictator" -- has ruled the ex-Soviet nation since 1994 and overseen a series of elections that international observers have deemed unfair.

Voters were on Sunday electing the 110 MPs of the House of Representatives, the lower chamber in what the opposition calls a rubber-stamp parliament.

Those critical of Lukashenko faced little choice at the ballot box, with the main opposition leaders and the only two current opposition MPs barred from standing.

"The elections have been reduced to a ritual, just like in the USSR," Ales Bialiatski, head of rights group Vyasna, said in a statement.

Alaksej Janukevich, deputy head of the Belarus National Front opposition party, told AFP he believed the authorities had chosen "the familiar scenario of falsifications".

According to official figures, more than 35 percent of the 6.8 million electorate had voted ahead of polling day through absentee ballots. A further two percent voted in the first hour after polls opened at 8am.

Belarusian election monitoring campaign Right to Choose, organized by opposition parties, reported 485 violations during preliminary voting, mostly electoral officials inflating the number of voters at polling stations as compared to observers' counts.

This comes despite renewed efforts by Lukashenko to reach out to Western nations, which have been critical of his record on human rights and democracy.

Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss, made a rare visit to western Europe this month, meeting with Austrian leaders in Vienna.

Defending his record, the 65-year-old said he wanted the European Union to be "an important political and business partner" for his country.

He also hosted then White House national security advisor John Bolton for rare talks in Minsk in late August, saying a "new chapter" was opening in ties with Washington.

As he faces a presidential election himself next year, Lukashenko is looking to the West to take further steps after already lifting some sanctions imposed after a 2011 crackdown on protests.

He is also seeking a counterweight in relations with giant neighbor Russia, which is keen to ensure Belarus remains firmly in its sphere of influence. -AFP