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Exit Poll Mess as Belarussians Vote

MINSK -- Belarussians voted Sunday in a referendum on whether to change the country's constitution and permit President Alexander Lukashenko to run for a third term, a vote the opposition said was already tarnished by violations.

Voters were also electing lawmakers to the nation's 110-seat parliament, which has little power.

The European Union and the United States have expressed strong doubts that the vote would meet democratic standards, warning that it may further estrange Belarus from its European neighbors.

Lukashenko, branded Europe's last dictator, shrugged off the criticism as he voted Sunday, saying: "Turn to your own problems and resolve those. You don't need to worry so much about us."

The referendum asks whether Lukashenko can seek a third term and if the current two-term limit can be scrapped.

Independent opinion polls conducted before the vote found that Lukashenko was short of the majority support he needs from the nation's 7 million registered voters to see the referendum pass.

However, an exit poll conducted by a previously unknown analytical center, Ecoom, working under the aegis of the Belarussian Central Elections Commission, had 82.3 percent of 8,249 voters saying "yes" to Lukashenko's third term as of 1 p.m., said the center's director, Sergei Musienko.

Belarussian state television broadcast the exit poll's results throughout the day, in violation of a law that bans releasing their results before the polls close.

And while all political campaigning is forbidden on election day, state television on Sunday continued to broadcast pro-Lukashenko commercials.

An expected exit poll from the independent Gallup Organization/Baltic Surveys was in doubt after more than half of its 200 poll-takers were detained, opposition leaders said.

The head of the Lithuania-based group did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Election observers from the opposition were barred from polling places, said Vintsuk Vyachorka, head of the opposition Belarussian Popular Front.

At a polling station in a Minsk school, many of the early voters expressed unhappiness with Lukashenko and dismay at his move to stay in power.

During the campaign, the government has sought to emphasize that life has improved under Lukashenko. However, the average salary remains the equivalent of $150 per month, some 80 percent of industry is state-controlled and many young Belarussians say they dream of leaving the country.

Lukashenko was first elected on an anti-corruption platform in 1994. His government has since cracked down on dissent, harassed the opposition and the independent media, and has been suspected of involvement in the disappearance of four opposition figures.

(The Moscow Times 18.x.04)

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