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Belarus President Gains Power; Widespread Voter Fraud Alleged

By Lee Hockstader
The Washington Post

Amid widespread allegations of fraud, voters in the former Soviet republic of Belarus overwhelmingly approved a new constitution that would give the country's authoritarian president vast powers to crack down on his political opponents and would make him a cabinet member for life, according to results announced Monday.

Slightly more than 70 percent of voters approved President Alexander Lukashenko's proposed constitution in a referendum that ended Sunday, despite the heated objections of opposition lawmakers, the courts and international human rights groups.

Turnout was reported at 84 percent, but Viktor Gonchar, the former head of the country's electoral commission who was fired last week by Lukashenko, said the turnout figure was impossibly high and clearly indicated that the vote was falsified.

The vote appeared to nudge the country of 10 million people a step closer to constitutional crisis, which already has raised fears in Moscow that Russia might be forced to intervene if the showdown turns violent.

Lukashenko, 42, a former Communist state-farm director, has said the referendum is legally binding. His opponents in parliament view it as advisory, allege that thousands of violations were committed in the balloting and vow to move forward this week with plans to impeach the president.

Semyon Sharetsky, chairman of the Belarusan parliament, appealed to the international community Monday to help "prevent the strengthening of dictatorship in Belarus."

Under the new constitution, Lukashenko's term in office would be extended to 2001. He would be immune from prosecution for life and would have a permanent seat in the cabinet after leaving the presidency.

He would have sweeping powers to control or dissolve parliament, would broaden his hold on the courts and would be authorized to declare a state of emergency even if he suspected no more than a vaguely defined threat of violence. He would also be able to bring criminal charges against members of parliament "for defamation and insult" - a provision that rights groups say could be used to dampen dissent.