Minsk - Authoritarian leader Aleksander Lukashenko will face a record nine opponents in Belarus' upcoming presidential election, officials said Thursday.
Lukashenko is hoping to be elected to an unprecedented fourth term in office in the December 19 poll.
Belarus' Central Election Committee meanwhile also gave final approval to a first-ever live debate between presidential candidates on Belarus' national television, whose programmes otherwise are subject to censorship.
The two-hour televised debate is scheduled for December 4, with a live debate on national radio set for the next day.
Lukashenko is not expected to participate, however.
European Union officials have promised Belarus billions of dollars in aid if the vote is free and fair.
A former collective farm boss, Lukashenko in past presidential elections had allowed no more than five candidates as symbolic opponents, and according to critics employed massive vote fraud to stay in office.
Lukashenko has already predicted he will garner at least 70 per cent support in next month's poll.
Human rights activists have long criticised Lukashenko for his government's systematic repression of political opponents and suppression of independent media.
His government most recently has targeted evangelical christians, ethnic Poles, and independent internet newssites as the greatest threats to his rule.
Some independent experts have estimated Lukashenko's actual popular support in the country is less than 50 per cent, but others have pointed to Belarus' relatively stable economy and low-cost public health system as legitimate grounds for his popularity.
Were no candidate to obtain more than half ballots cast from the December 19 election, the top two finishers would face each other in a run off.