Amid a series of high-stakes elections around the world this year, the Eastern European nation of Belarus on Sunday offered an alternative to the unpredictability of democracy: a vote for parliament without a single critical candidate. with the despotic leader of the country.

All opposition parties have been banned (belonging to one is a crime) and the four approved parties that participated in the elections have only competed to outdo each other in their displays of unwavering loyalty to the country’s leader, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko. , who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 30 years.

For the government, Sunday’s elections – the first since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Belarus’ neighbor to the south – are important as an opportunity to demonstrate to Moscow, its ally, that it has eliminated all internal opposition and survived the economic situation. and other stresses imposed by war. Russia, which in the past had doubts about Lukashenko’s durability and reliability, launched its invasion in February 2022 partly from Belarusian territory.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, an exiled opponent of Lukashenko, said: “These so-called elections are nothing more than a circus show. It’s not even entertaining.”

The Belarusian elections are similar in format and predictability to a vote next month in Russia aimed at anointing Putin for a fifth term in the Kremlin.

The European Union, which for years held out hope that Belarus, caught between Russia and Poland, could be pulled out of the Kremlin’s orbit, has dismissed the entire process as a farce. The bloc’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, last week denounced Lukashenko’s “continued senseless violation of human rights and unprecedented level of repression” ahead of the upcoming elections. Those responsible will be held accountable.”

With the outcome of Sunday’s election (a Parliament packed with Lukashenko supporters) a foregone conclusion, the only uncertainty is turnout, and even that figure will likely be suspect, given Lukashenko’s dominance over the media and the electoral process. Same-day voting for local councils will yield a similarly predictable result.

Four parties loyal to the president present candidates for the elections: the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, Bélaya Rus and the Republican Party of Labor and Justice. Lukashenko is nominally independent, like Putin in Russia.

Tikhanovskaya ran against Lukashenko in the 2020 presidential election, claimed victory and then fled to neighboring Lithuania at the start of a cruel crackdown on the president’s opponents carried out with the help of Moscow. She has asked her supporters to boycott Sunday’s vote.

Urging voters to avoid Lukashenko loyalists on the ballot, he offered an alternative, an AI-generated candidate called Yas, created by the opposition. “Frankly, he is more real than any candidate the regime can offer.” said on social media, “And the best part? He can’t be arrested!”

To increase turnout, the Central Election Commission of Belarus allowed four days of early voting. When polling stations opened Sunday morning, state news agency Belta reported, 43.6 percent of registered voters had already cast their ballots, more than half the 77 percent turnout in the last election. parliamentarians, in 2019.

Belarusians who do not vote risk losing their jobs in state companies and institutions or being interrogated by state security services, according to exiled opposition activists.

At the same time, Belarusians living abroad have been excluded and cannot be counted on to annul their votes or write down the names of alternative candidates. An electoral law adopted last year abolished overseas polling stations.

It is the first time Belarus has held national elections since Lukashenko claimed an unlikely landslide victory, his sixth in a row, with 80 percent of the vote against Tikhanovskaya and other rival candidates in the fraud-plagued 2020 presidential race. .

Unlike that election, which allowed several opposition candidates to be on the ballot and was followed by huge street protests over falsified results, Sunday’s vote only offers a choice between different shades of regime loyalists. It has also been preceded by a wave of repression to prevent any risk of demonstrations. Photographing ballots, which helped provide evidence of widespread fraud in 2020, has been declared illegal.

The only significance of the vote, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an advocacy group, was another grim indicator that, after four years of arrests and a steady shrinking of an already severely restricted political space, “ The authoritarian regime of Belarus has transformed into a totalitarian system.”

“Free and fair elections cannot be held in this environment of total repression,” the institute added.

Warning of “extremists” (the government’s catch-all designation for dissidents in one of the world’s most repressive police states), Lukashenko this week ordered law enforcement agencies, including Belarus’ KGB security service, a brutal and unreformed relic of past Soviet rule, organize street patrols with small arms to ensure security.

As of this weekend, according to Viasna, a human rights group that monitors detentions, Belarus had 1,419 political prisoners, mostly people who were imprisoned after the 2020 elections. They include leaders of dissolved opposition parties and the co-winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, Ales Bialiatski. Torture, both physical and psychological, human rights observers say, is common in an archipelago of grim prisons.

Belarus provided logistical support to the invading Russian army and allowed its territory to be used as a staging ground for a failed Russian advance towards kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. But he has resisted pressure from Moscow to send his own troops into battle in Ukraine, one of the few things Lukashenko has done that enjoys broad popular support.

Like Putin in Russia, Lukashenko has used the war in Ukraine to present his country as a fortress besieged and threatened by NATO and internal traitors. He has repeatedly claimed, without basis, that Poland, a NATO member that controlled large swathes of what is now western Belarus before World War II, is massing troops in preparation for an attack to recapture lost territory.

Ethnic Poles in western Belarus have been subject to widespread repression, and Andrzej Poczobut, a prominent figure in the community, received an eight-year prison sentence last year for “inciting hatred” and “the rehabilitation of Nazism.” ”.

Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin claimed this week in an interview with a Kremlin-controlled television station that Ukraine had gathered more than 110,000 troops on its border with Belarus. There is no evidence of this. He also threatened to shoot down “without warning” NATO aircraft that violated Belarusian airspace.

The saber-rattling is largely aimed at a domestic audience, which Lukashenko needs to mobilize ahead of an election whose outcome is not in doubt but which could nonetheless prove embarrassing if not enough people vote. That prospect seems unlikely, experts say, given the risks of staying home.

Western election observers have been banned from entering Belarus, a ban that Sergei Lebedev, head of an observation mission sent by the Commonwealth of Independent States, a largely moribund organization comprising Russia and seven other former Soviet republics in majority authoritarian, said it was “logical and justified.” ” because “there is no need to come here to look for flaws and fictitious violations in the organization of elections.”

By Sam