Q&A: Parliamentary election in Belarus

Belarusians go to the polls on 23 September to elect the lower chamber of parliament, the House of Representatives.

The campaign has been lacklustre with many observers regarding a result in favour of the authorities as a foregone conclusion.

One unknown this time, however, is turnout.

Why does Belarus matter?

Belarus has a population of 9.5 million, shares borders with Russia and the EU and serves as a major transit route, most importantly for Russian oil and gas.

Its president, Alexander Lukashenko, has been dubbed "Europe's last dictator".

Militarily, Belarus is part of the Russian defence system facing the West.

All Western attempts to bring Belarus into the fold of European democracies have so far only resulted in increasingly harsher clampdowns on dissent.

Does parliament matter?

President Lukashenko has reduced parliament to a rubber-stamping body since coming to power in 1994.

Since 2004, there have been no opposition members in parliament, and there were only a handful in the previous four years.

According to Belarusian pundit Andrey Yahoraw, in its most recent four-year term, the house considered more than 650 draft laws, but only one - on animal welfare - was initiated by MPs.

But there is an opposition boycott, right?

The two strongest opposition parties - United Civic and the BPF - are advocating a "controlled" boycott, under which they pulled out of the race about a week before the election.

Two opposition parties are still in the running: Just World and the Belarusian Social Democratic Party. Members of unregistered opposition movements, such as the Tell the Truth campaign, are listed as unaffiliated candidates.

A number of opposition figures such as former dissident MP Valeriy Fralow have been allowed to stand.

Two pro-government parties, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Communist Party of Belarus, are standing while unaffiliated candidates include state employees or people nominated by working collectives.

Has the campaign struck any sparks?

It has been even more lacklustre than in previous elections, with state media often treating the ballot as a secondary topic after sport and the weather.

This, coupled with voter apathy and a lack of interest on the part of the opposition, has even led to complaints from the top two electoral officials about the campaign being sluggish and "disappointing".

As usual, President Lukashenko has not given his public backing to any party or candidates.

Will voters even notice the boycott?

While the opposition universally agrees that standing in this election means fighting a losing battle, it is divided on taking part in it.

It has pursued three different strategies: full-scale participation, the "controlled" boycott and a complete boycott.

The opposition had also hoped to get parts of the electorate to boycott the election. However, the authorities have countered that campaign by removing all mentions of a boycott from election spots on state TV and radio.

Any evidence of dirty tricks?

Some opposition figures have complained about state broadcasters failing to record their five-minute speeches altogether, citing implausible technical problems.

Opposition activists in Belarus, as well as some in the West, argue that room for manipulation is also created by the use of early voting and by the absence of independent observers from the vote-counting process.

Some well-known personalities and opposition campaigners, such as Alexander Milinkevich, Mikhail Pashkevich and Artur Finkevich, were denied registration as candidates on technicalities.

Given the boycotts and opposition divisions, does the government have anything at all to fear from this vote?

The only challenge for the government is to ensure the required minimum turnout in each constituency.

The 110 members of the lower chamber are elected for a four-year term. Elections are held in single-seat constituencies using the first-past-the-post system.

The winning candidate must poll more than half the votes on a turnout of 50% plus one voter. Failing that, a run-off is held where the required turnout is lowered to 25%.

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