, MINSK, Dec 19 – Belarus went to the polls on Sunday in presidential elections expected to hand a fourth term to its unpredictable strongman Alexander Lukashenko, extending his grip on power for another five years.
Lukashenko, who has been at the helm of this poor ex-Soviet state for the past 16 years, is running against an array of nine opposition candidates.
Candidates include respected poet Vladimir Nekliayev, former deputy foreign minister Andrei Sannikov, and economist Yaroslav Romanchuk. The opposition however has failed to unite and is largely unfamiliar in the country dominated by state television.
Polling stations close at 1800 GMT when exit polls are expected to give an immediate indication of the voting trend, Nikolai Lozovik of the Belarus’ central election commission said in televised comments.
The main uncertainty is whether the opposition will manage to bring significant numbers of supporters out onto the streets for protests Sunday night.
The mercurial Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet state of 10 million since 1994, was for years an unwavering ally of Moscow but in recent months has infuriated Russia by seeking to align Belarus closer to the EU.
Once accused by the United States of running Europe’s "last dictatorship", he has earned notoriety for antics such as dressing his young son, reportedly born out of wedlock, in full military uniform for parades — but also for not tolerating dissent.
US diplomats have referred to Lukashenko as a "clearly disturbed" man who "intends to stay in power indefinitely," according to a WikiLeaks cable published by the Guardian on Friday.
The opposition has already declared the elections as fraudulent despite being given more freedom to campaign and 30 minutes of national airtime for each candidate — unprecedented measures seen as Lukashenko’s attempts to receive recognition from Europe.
Seven of the nine opposing candidates have already called on Belarussians to come to the capital’s main square after polls close and denounce them as fraudulent.
Lukashenko however has shown no willingness to cede or share power, instead saying recently that after 16 years in power he only now has the experience to be a real president and warning against protests.
"Dear friends, don’t go out on to the streets or anywhere. You are not going to get the country, we are not going to let you tear it up. It’s cost us too dear," he said.
Critics have said that the increased freedom during the campaign period is just a "decoration".
"What authorities have tried to show off as a democratic process has nothing to do with tomorrow" since the opposition has next to no representation in the vote count process, Nekliayev said Saturday.
The opposition has already declared the elections as fraudulent
Only the election that brought Lukashenko to power in 1994 was acknowledged by monitors as fair. International observers said the 2001 and 2006 polls fell well short of democratic standards.
Several of Lukashenko’s opponents, including 2006 presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin, were jailed for terms of several years and the country has resisted pressure to impose a moratorium on the death penalty.
Two convicts were executed with a shot to the back of the head in March this year, according to Amnesty International.
A pre-election report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights found "scant" evidence of campaigning across the country.
Television news was "dominated by extensive reporting on the presidents activities", it noted.
Opposition candidate Romanchuk complained of having to meet voters on the street due to venues cancelling his events at the last minute and called Belarus "an information vacuum" where even Russian news programmes are edited.
Lukashenko’s moves towards a rapprochement with the EU and sniping at the Kremlin have not endeared him to Russia.
In June, Russia drastically cut gas supplies to Belarus amid a row over payments, reinforcing EU worries about energy security.
Lukashenko, who is fond of being photographed playing ice-hockey in full protective garb and cross-country skiing on racing skis, has long promoted a folksy image at home and likes to be known as "batka" (dad).