There were no surprises in Sunday's Belarus election. For the opposition, there is still no room in the new parliament and Europe's "last dictator," President Alexander Lukashenko, remains unchallenged.
An older man in a raincoat smiles: "Yes, I voted," he says, and beams as if he had just taken care of an important task. The retiree went to his local voting booth on Sunday in the capital Minsk to cast his ballot.
For him, voting was an obligation, as it was during the old Soviet days, but he was not prepared to divulge whom he voted for, except that it "was not a politician." His candidate, he said, had made sure that a street with potholes in his neighborhood was paved.
The choice of candidates for the roughly 7 million eligible voters in Belarus was less than abundant. From 293 candidates, voters directly elected 110 parliamentarians. On the wall at the election booth at a Minsk school where the old man voted were photographs of five candidates: two businessmen, one member of parliament, a linguist and a man who was unemployed.
A small notice informed voters that one person had withdrawn their candidacy, but there was no information that it happened to be a member of the opposition, whose party had called for boycotting the election. The words "boycott" or "opposition" were rarely, if ever, heard on the state-run evening news as the results were announced on Sunday. Instead, there was a lot of talk about the "festival of parliamentary democracy."
Voters dependent on the state
Voter turnout was said to be 74 percent, but doubts remain whether this official figure is accurate. Opposition leaders and election observers from non-governmental organizations criticized, in particular, the pre-election voting process. Apparently, about a quarter of all voters had cast their ballots a week before the actual election day. Critics say that procedure left the door open for manipulation.
Just how many people voluntarily voted is hard to determine because a large part of the electorate works for state-owned companies, which are dependent on the government.
Many were forced to go to the polls, says the Minsk-based political scientist, Valeri Karbalevitch. He coined the phrase "the channeled election" to describe the vote.
Lydia Yermoshina, director of the central election commission, denied such accusations, saying on television that only small irregularities had been observed.
A civil servant parliament with no influence
The real winner of the ballot long before it even took place was not even up for election: President Alexander Lukashenko. The 58-year-old has ruled his eastern European country with an iron fist for nearly two decades. According to estimates by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), there have been no democratic elections in Belarus since the mid-1990s.
Parliament in Lukashenko's Belarus diverges not only from parliaments in the West, but also to ones in the former Soviet republics of Russia and Ukraine. There is neither a government party, nor parliamentary political groups. Parliament is made up mostly of government employees, or representatives of state-owned companies, rather than politicians belonging to a particular party. Heated debates are not held and critics of the government are non-existent. The legislature, notes Karbalevitch, has little influence on policy - and the public knows that: "Parliament is not viewed as a power factor," he says.
Opposition figures will not be present in the Belarus parliament. Two leading opposition parties called on voters to boycott the poll and withdrew their own candidates, among them, the liberal-conservative United Citizens Party. More than 30 TV commercials for their campaign were not aired by state-run broadcasters "for censorship reasons," said party chairman Anatoli Lebedko, who was interviewed for this article by DW. In his view, the election was "orchestrated." Smaller opposition parties, however, stayed in the race. For observers, this was a sign that regime opponents were not unified.
No protests expected
Experts, like Valeri Karbalevitch, think that this parliamentary election was even more restrictive than the one held four years ago. "In 2008, Belarus was still engaged in a policy of dialogue with the European Union," he said. At the time, there were no mass rejections of opposition candidates during the registration period, he noted, and western election observers had been allowed into the country.
Karbalevitch does not expect protests, like those in Russia. People are too intimidated, he says, and have little faith in the opposition. Not even the country's precarious economic climate has drawn Belarusians into the streets, he added.
'Russian wall' protects Lukashenko
There are varying opinions on how relations between the European Union and Belarus will develop. Ever since Lukashenko's controversial victory during the 2010 presidential poll, ties with the West have been testy. In the wake of the vote, opposition protests were crushed violently. Some 16 opposition figures are still sitting in prison today. The EU responded with sanctions: a travel ban was imposed, and foreign bank accounts were frozen for Lukashenko and about 240 other Belarus government employees, judges and businessmen.
Europe, however, has no clear plan how it should deal with Lukashenko's authoritarian regime, laments Karbalevitch. He believes that the sanctions imposed by the EU haven't really affected the regime because Lukashenko can depend on Russia - the 'big brother' from the east - for help. Belarus not only receives billions in loans, but also gets cheap gas and oil deliveries. One western observer in Minsk has described the situation as "Lukashenko hiding behind a wall: As long as this wall is a Russian wall, it doesn't matter what sort of tree is scraping up against it."