MINSK, Belarus – Banners along the fastidiously clean streets of Belarus' cities tell the country's people to be sure to vote in Sunday's national parliament election. What's missing are any posters showing candidates' faces, or their names, or even stating which parties are in the running.
Lidiya Yermoshina, head of the Central Elections Commission, told The Associated Press that this election will be especially "active and democratic." But the absence of campaign material suggests otherwise, as does the experience of Ales Logvinets, a leader of the opposition movement "For Freedom."
Logvinets tried to boost his chances by organizing a concert with a noted rock star to attract young people. He planned to hand out some political pamphlets and get signatures for a petition to put him on the ballot for a district in Minsk, the capital.
However, the rock star was Liavon Volski, whose trenchant lyrics and defiance of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko have brought repeated bans on his performances — though this one went ahead.
The elections commission then determined that by passing out pamphlets while collecting signatures, Logvinets had violated regulations; he was rejected as a candidate.
"Lukashenko is prepared to simulate the facade (of democracy), but not change the system," Logvinets said.
A pre-election report by the observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe notes that "the process of campaigning is strictly regulated. The campaign remains largely invisible."
Lukashenko has a strong incentive for conducting an election that might come closer to Western democratic norms than previous votes during his 22 years of rule. Belarus' Soviet-style command economy is faltering badly — gross domestic product fell 4 percent last year and is down another 3 percent this year — and the country is eager for investment and assistance. Lukashenko, sometimes characterized as Europe's last dictator, secured a lifting of U.S. and European Union sanctions against Belarus this year by releasing all political prisoners and playing a role in trying to mediate the war in eastern Ukraine.
There are 488 candidates running for 110 seats, but critics point to problems they say foretell a rigged and unfair vote. The departing parliament has no opposition members.
Lukashenko was re-elected last year.
Early voting has begun and there have been complaints that the ballot boxes are not guarded at night. The early balloting itself is seen as a coercive state mechanism.
"Students, doctors and state employees are forced to vote early ... This is not a test of democracy, but the next test for autocracy," said Anatol Lyabedzka, leader of the United Civil Party.
The final votes aren't in, but the opposition is already making plans to protest the results on Monday.