Belarus says election turnout strong, despite opposition boycott
* Authorities report turnout over 74 percent
* Opposition parties urged voters to abstain
* Hardline president calls opposition "cowards"
By Richard Balmforth and Andrei Makhovsky
MINSK, Sept 24 (Reuters) - Authorities in Belarus said they had a strong turnout in a parliamentary election on Sunday after hardline President Alexander Lukashenko denounced opposition leaders as "cowards" for urging people to boycott it as a sham exercise.
The two main opposition parties had called on people to go mushrooming or fishing and abstain from voting in an election which they said would produce a token parliament to rubber-stamp directives by Lukashenko.
"Elections took place in the course of which 109 deputies were elected ...," Lidiya Yermoshina, head of the central election committee, told a news conference early on Monday.
She said turnout had been strong at 74.3 per cent, but made no comment on whether the boycott call by the opposition had had any effect.
Asked whether any opposition candidates had been elected, she replied: "It seems doubtful to me".
The call for voters to shun the election prompted a sneering rebuke from Lukashenko, a populist who has run the former Soviet republic of 9.5 million with an iron fist since 1994 and has stifled any opposition to his rule.
"They are cowards who have nothing to say to the people," he told journalists on Sunday after voting in Minsk.
In the one seat which had not been decided, an opposition candidate failed to secure more than half the votes and a second round of voting would be held, Yermoshina said.
The opposition United Civic Party and the Belarussian People's Front called for the boycott in protest at the continued detention of political prisoners and election fraud.
But voting by students, armed service staff and police produced a 26 percent turnout in early voting and there was never any doubt that the ballot would be declared valid.
The 110-seat parliament is made up mainly of independent candidates, few of whom are fielded by political parties, and its deputies rarely initiate any legislation of their own.
The outcome could enable Lukashenko to present the election as a genuine democratic exercise. Western monitoring agencies have not judged an election in Belarus free and fair since 1995.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe sent in 330 observers for the election and will give its verdict on Monday.
Defending his 18-year rule and intolerance of dissent, Lukashenko, a former Soviet state farm boss who was once described by the U.S. administration of George W. Bush as Europe's last dictator, said on Sunday: "We don't need revolutions and shake-ups."
"If this time round there is doubt cast on the choice of the Belarussian people then I don't know what standards will be good enough in future elections," said Lukashenko.
Asked about possible Western recognition for the vote, he said: "We don't hold elections for the West. The main architect is the Belarussian people."
Lukashenko's relations with the United States and the European Union, which were never good, nose-dived when he cracked down on street protests against his re-election in December 2010.
Scores of his opponents were arrested. Many now either lie low after periods in jail or have fled the country.
Human rights bodies say the run-up to the poll was marked by arrests and detention of opposition activists.
State-run television and radio made no mention of the boycott call. Opposition groups were prevented from holding street protests or giving out leaflets to support their action and some opposition figures were prevented from registering as candidates for technical reasons.
"These are all banned," said Anatoly Lebedko, head of the United Civic Party, gesturing to a pile of leaflets on his desk, which called on people to take their families to the park, go fishing or stroll in the woods rather than vote.
Lebedko's party posted a video on YouTube featuring activists gathering mushrooms, playing chess and reading books in a park - all as alternatives to going to polling stations.
Anatoly, a 50-year-old computer programmer who cast his vote at a central polling station, said: "I am hoping for new deputies in parliament who suit me better in their work." Referring to the opposition boycott, he said: "I don't condemn them. In their situation, they considered this the right thing to do."
Yuri, a teacher of about the same age, was more severe in his comments about the opposition. "The country does not need these people. I consider it normal for a person to take part in the public life of our country," he said.
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