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Independent Pollster Questions Size Of Lukashenka's Election Victory

A recent survey in Belarus has challenged the official results of the March 19 presidential election, where the incumbent, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, cruised to an easy victory. It gives more credence to the theory that the authorities may have cheated -- a suspicion that many in the international community have already voiced.

PRAGUE, April 21, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The world will probably never know the real results of the March 19 vote in Belarus. Neither domestic nor foreign monitors were allowed to check the vote counting at any polling station.

Officially, at least, it was a resounding victory for the incumbent, Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

On March 20, the Central Election Commission announced that Lukashenka won a "stunning" victory, trouncing his rivals with nearly 83 percent of the vote.

But a recent independent survey held by the Vilnius-based Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies (NISEPI) among nearly 1,500 adult Belarusians from March 27 to April 6 provides a different perspective..

According to the survey, 63.6 percent of those who came to the presidential poll voted for Lukashenka. This means that the Central Election Commission may have revised the real results in Lukashenka's favor by some 20 percent, or 1.2 million votes.

That wouldn't be a surprise to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Its election-observation mission in Belarus concluded that the vote failed to meet its standards for democratic elections.

And in the wake of the poll, the EU imposed a travel ban on President Lukashenka and 30 other Belarusian officials for their alleged involvement in rigging the vote.

The pollster also found that the Central Election Commission may have deprived opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich of some 960,000 votes. The poll gave Milinkevich 20.6 percent of the vote. Officially, he received just 6 percent.

The opposition reacted to the official results with a week of protests in Minsk, which ended in a police crackdown and mass arrests.

'Less Support'

At a news conference at the British Embassy in Minsk on April 20, NISEPI Director Aleh Manayeu said that the survey contradicts the official assertion that President Lukashenka enjoys overwhelming support among his compatriots.

But Manayeu also advised caution in overestimating the influence of the opposition on Belarusian society.

"The main reason for the increasing discontent in society is not so much the opposition and external forces as the very activity of the Belarusian authorities. During the past year alone the number of those wronged by the authorities increased by one-third and now stands at 36.5 percent. A social base for change does exist. However, the readiness of Belarusian society for change must not be underestimated, which is done by the authorities, or overestimated, which is a sin of the opposition," Manayeu said.

Manayeu also said there is a discrepancy between the official data and his survey's result regarding how many people cast ballots during the early-voting period from March 14 to March 18.

However, Manayeu countered the charges often heard from the opposition that the government compelled Belarusians to participate in the early voting. The early voting was effectively outside independent monitoring.

"The official and real data on the early voting noticeably differ. [Central Election Commission Chairwoman Lidziya] Yarmoshyna said [the early-voting turnout] was 31 percent, while we found it was 25 percent. However, the opposition's assertion that people were forced to take part in the early voting on a mass scale is not true," Manayeu said. "This was confirmed by 17 percent of those who voted ahead of March 19, while 89 percent said they did it on their own initiative."

NISEPI was forced to move to Lithuania after the Belarusian authorities closed down the polling agency in April 2005. The agency participated in conducting an independent exit poll during the October 2004 constitutional referendum. NISEPI suggested that Lukashenka actually lost the plebiscite and therefore should not be able to run for a third term in 2006.

So has this loss of status affected the pollster's activities in Belarus?

According to Manayeu, NISEPI still has its former network of some 100 interviewers in Minsk and the provinces. The most important difference, he said, is that now people working for NISEPI cannot use the organization's name and must act as private individuals.

"All the people who worked for NISEPI when it had legal status have remained in the country. We continue to work, but as a group of private citizens," Manayeu said. "Thank God, there has so far been no legislation that would regulate private activities in the country, so every citizen, including us, may conduct such polls."

Even with more surveys, it will be difficult to ascertain the truth -- especially as all of the election ballots will be destroyed later this year.

(RFE/RL 23.iv.06)

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