As Belarusians prepare to go to the polls Sunday, the question is not who will win the presidential election but in which round and by how wide a margin Alexander Lukashenko will get his victory.
Despite efforts by the Belarusian opposition to discredit his regime, Lukashenko, 47, appears to have sufficient public support partly attributed to Russia's passive stance during the campaign to win another term.
Masses of compromising material and the international community's negative attitude toward Lukashenko have failed to dampen his chances significantly. Even though the opposition has finally consolidated around a single candidate trade union leader Vladimir Goncharik Lukashenko appears certain of victory. Goncharik's final tally is of interest mainly as an indication of how future elections could shape up.
"Lukashenko will probably win in the first round," said political analyst Igor Bunin, head of Center for Election Technologies, a think tank. "As for Goncharik, the Times [of London] says he could get 30 percent, while opinion polls give him 5-6 percent. But if he gets even 15 percent, it would be a step for the future."
Lukashenko must receive at least 50 percent of the vote to win outright in the first round. If no candidate wins 50 percent, a runoff election will be held at a future date. Lukashenko was first elected in1994 and, in 1996, extended his presidency in a controversial referendum in which 70 percent of voters supported a draft of a new constitution.
Analysts at the Minsk Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Studies say a second round cannot be ruled out. Vladimir Dorokhov, one of the institute's main researchers, said the group's latest poll gives Lukashenko 45-47 percent, while Goncharik is near 25 percent.
Dorokhov said that if a second round is necessary, it could change the situation. Lukashenko's rating, he said, is largely based on the belief that he has broad public support, but if he can't capture victory in the first round, many voters might start to see him in a different light.
"Only 25-30 percent of voters are avowed Lukashenko supporters," Dorokhov said. "The rest are undecided and vote depending on the circumstances. At critical moments, Lukashenko has always managed to win these voters, but when society, especially the nomenklatura, bureaucrats and officials, see he doesn't have such broad support, they could have second thoughts."
International forces could also attempt to influence the elections, observers say. In July, Lukashenko said Belarus could be dragged into a "Yugoslav scenario" in which international observers would conduct exit polls and use their results to protest any official results.
Michael Kozak, the U.S. ambassador to Belarus, admitted in a letter to a British newspaper that America's objectives in Belarus were the same as they were in Nicaragua, where the socialist government of Daniel Ortega eventually lost power.
But analysts played down that scenario. "There could be an attempt to try the Yugoslav scenario," said Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Politika Foundation. "That Kozak mentioned Nicaragua is no more than a Freudian slip given that he's a specialist in overthrowing regimes. But there are no grounds for it in Belarus Goncharik isn't [Vojislav] Kostunica, Lukashenko isn't [Slobodan] Milosevic and Belarusians aren't Serbs."
Bunin, the analyst at the Center for Election Technology, said any outside attempt to stir public opposition could have the opposite effect and offer the regime the opportunity "to consolidate authoritarian and nationalist forces around Lukashenko."
Politika's Nikonov said the "crowd effect" getting the public to take to the streets would not work, adding that, although the situation has occasionally grown tense on the streets in Minsk, the current atmosphere is calm. He suggested that by making allegations of bloody crimes and even murder committed by Lukashenko, the opposition had hurt itself by dissuading many ordinary people from joining any protest movements.
Although it is difficult to gauge people's attitudes, the fact remains the public hasn't reacted as strongly as might be expected to the accusations of former top officials about presidential "death squads" and attacks against well-known people.
Dorokhov, the Minsk analyst, said many in Belarus have the attitude that "as long as it doesn't concern me directly, it's not so bad." He added: "Ordinary people, not politicians, businessmen or journalists, simply don't identify with these cases."
Bunin said the calm reaction to the allegations could indicate that Lukashenko's popularity is still high. In recent months, he has tried to consolidate his popularity by paying pensions on time and by promising to raise average monthly wages to $250 a huge sum to most Belarusians.
The only politician who, according to surveys, can compete with Lukashenko in the popularity race and influence the situation if he chose to is Russian President Vladimir Putin. In polls by Dorokhov's institute, 60 percent of respondents named Putin as their ideal politician. Lukashenko was chosen by 35-37 percent.
But Dorokhov said that though "Lukashenko doesn't suit Putin as a partner, " the Russian leader would not intervene without being sure of the result. "I'm sure he [Putin] has no illusions and has all the information on the death squads and the abductions," he said. "But given the current situation in Belarus, he can't change anything."
Bunin said that Putin "doesn't like and cannot like Lukashenko," and would prefer to see someone else in power. But there isn't a realistic alternative candidate to appeal to Belarusian voters, who are, he said, "conservative, paternalistic and oriented toward an authoritarian leader."
Politika's Nikonov, however, said that from a pragmatic point of view, Moscow's passive approach was a miscalculation. Having seen that Lukashenko's victory would be inevitable, Moscow should have given him support out of calculations for future cooperation, he said.
"The chosen position wasn't the best," Nikonov said. "If Lukashenko wins, he won't feel himself under any obligations. So it would have been more logical to support him rather than to just move passively out of the way."