Belarus opposition down but not out after battle

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Rally for jailed opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov, 21 Dec 10
Image caption,
Activists rallied for jailed opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov outside a prison in Minsk

With hundreds of demonstrators in jail after the Belarus presidential election, the question arises: Should the country's opposition even have participated?

The five main opposition candidates are among those held by police and President Alexander Lukashenko seems to be even more firmly in charge than before. So one would forgive pro-democracy activists for asking themselves if the effort they expended campaigning was worth it.

It is unclear what the opposition hoped to gain from the elections. Did they truly hope to unseat Mr Lukashenko at the ballot box? Did they really think they would overthrow him by a public uprising?

If the answer to either question is "yes", they seem to have been badly mistaken.

Doubts about figures

Yet questions remain about the numbers announced by Belarus's central election commission.

In an informal straw poll in Minsk, the overwhelming majority of those asked said they were voting for one of the opposition candidates.

This does not automatically mean that Mr Lukashenko lost, or that the election should have entered a second round, as would have happened if none of the candidates had reached 50% of the vote.

But it does render doubtful the official results, in which the most successful of the president's challengers won just over 2%.

The scale of Mr Lukashenko's victory reminds some of Soviet times, when elections were largely a foregone conclusion, and it raises questions about the true level of his popularity.

Long-time observers speak of a "social contract" between the Belarus leader and the public.

Roughly, the agreement goes something like this: "You provide an extensive welfare state, full employment and heavily subsidised costs of living, and we continue to support you, if only passively."

Recently, many believed that this accord was crumbling. The world economic downturn was placing increasing pressure on the Belarus economy, and large numbers seemed to be tiring of Mr Lukashenko, who has been power for 16 years.

Playing a long game

Sunday's definitive show of strength against anti-government protesters provided fodder both for those who believe Mr Lukashenko is stronger than ever, and those who think his grip is weakening.

Or seen in a different light: the country's opposition may have overestimated their own strength and underestimated Mr Lukashenko's; or they may be playing a game with a longer time-frame.

One Minsk resident, Vadim, said he had voted for an opposition politician despite doubting the candidate's chances. "I'm making an investment in the future," he explained.