Western monitors said on Monday a parliamentary election in ex-Soviet Belarus that produced no seats for the opposition fell short of international standards despite minor improvements over previous polls.
The EU had said it might consider easing sanctions, which include a ban on entry to the United States and EU for President Alexander Lukashenko and 40 top officials, if the election went well.
Lukashenko, voting on Sunday, said it would be "hard for those among the Western monitors not to recognise the election."
Monitors had said in the run-up to the vote that they had been impressed with the staging of the poll. But their report said the count had been plagued by problems and cheating and access had been hindered in 35 percent of cases.
"Voting was generally well conducted but the process deteriorated considerably during the vote count. Promises to ensure transparency of the vote count were not implemented," the monitors` report said.
"The count was assessed as bad or very bad in 48 per cent of polling stations visited. Where access was possible several cases of deliberate falsification of results were observed."
The report quoted senior OSCE monitor Anne-Marie Lizin as saying that the signal to improve the electoral system was "not implemented and substantial improvements are required if Belarus is to conduct a genuinely democratic election."
The Belarus economy is largely state controlled, with high subsidies and public sector wages. The last year, however, has brought decisions to proceed with targeted privatisations and Minsk seeks to increase foreign investment -- an ambition that requires European or U.S. government approval of some sort.
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner noted the mission`s positive and negative observations, but went no further in her initial statement.
NO DOORS SLAMMED
Observers said they felt pleased at progress, yet disappointed at the shortcomings. "Our statement does not slam any doors, on the contrary it calls for cooperation," Geert Ahrens, head of the OSCE mission, told a news conference.
Earlier, the secretary of the Central Electoral Commission, Nikolai Lazovik said the liberal and nationalist opposition had failed to elect any members to the 110-seat chamber.
Lukashenko is seeking closer ties with the West after rows over gas prices with key ally Russia. He freed what the West labelled political prisoners and allowed 78 opposition candidates to run on Sunday, far more than in previous contests.
But lack of opposition representation in parliament may complicate his efforts to find favour in the West.
"This spits in the face of the European community," Alexander Kozulin, an opposition leader freed from jail last month, told Reuters, referring to the election results.
Analysts said sanctions on Minsk would be dropped over time.
"Lukashenko`s main concern is the 2011 presidential election and some sort of remedy will be found," said Kiril Koktysh of the Association of Political Experts and Consultants, a Moscow think tank. "The sanctions are more or less symbolic and will be lifted."
No election in Belarus, wedged between Russia and three EU states, has won Western approval since the mid-1990s.
The head of the Central Election Commission, Lidia Yermoshina, told reporters the number of seats won by the opposition should not be a consideration in the OSCE assessment.
"I think what matters from the OSCE is the process rather than the result," she said. "If this is not so, then the mission is conducting political, rather than monitoring tasks."
Veteran opposition figure Anatoly Lebedko predicted the West would make fresh overtures to Belarus regardless of the outcome.
"I don`t think those in the European elite banking on better ties with Belarussian authorities will now walk away from that idea," he said. "European politicians will have to manoeuvre between democratic principles and what is known as realpolitik."Reuters