Dec 14 (Reuters) - The ex-Soviet republic of Belarus holds a presidential election on Dec. 19 from which President Alexander Lukashenko, who has held power since 1994, is expected to emerge with a fresh five-year mandate, his fourth term.
Unlike in 2006, the Belarus opposition has been unable to decide on a single candidate for the election and, in all, 9 candidates are running apart from Lukashenko himself.
Below are portraits of the main contenders:
* Alexander Lukashenko, 56.
One-time director of a Soviet state farm, Lukashenko was elected to parliament in 1990 and in 1994 beat prime minister Vyacheslav Kebich to become president. He runs a command economy and has ruled Belarus with an iron fist, often jailing opponents and muzzling independent media while offering generous welfare and pensions to his citizens.
A referendum in 2004 lifted the two-term presidential limit, allowing Lukashenko to run again. International monitors and rights organisations say elections are fraudulently run and not a single election has been recognised by the West since 1996.
Lukashenko's third term in power has seen a slide in ties with Moscow and a bid by Lukashenko to woo the West and shake off the title of the "last dictatorship in Europe".
* Vladimir Neklyayev, 64.
A well-known poet, author of many popular songs, Neklyayev is a mysterious candidate. After running foul of Belarus authorities, he lived in Poland and Finland between 2001 and 2005 but recently appeared as head of the "Govori Pravdu" (Tell the Truth) social movement.
Pollsters say he is in second place behind Lukashenko, though far behind in percentage terms. Analysts say his organisation appears to rely heavily on funding from Moscow but that it is not clear whether this is from the Kremlin or from other sources in Moscow.
* Andrei Sannikov, 56.
A former deputy foreign minister, Sannikov quit this post in 1996 in protest at a constitutional referendum and went into opposition against Lukashenko. He heads the most popular Belarussian opposition site Charter 97 and the European Belarus movement. He has campaigned on taking Belarus into the European Union and improving ties with Russia. He says he funded his election campaign out of proceeds from selling his Minsk apartment.
* Grigory Kostusev, 53.
Kostusev is deputy head of the strongest nationalist party, the Belarussian National Front. In his election campaign, he has said he would restore the border with Russia, which was symbolically 'removed' in 1995 as part of moves towards a union, and would drop Russian as a state language. In public speeches he has made harsh attacks not only on Lukashenko but also on Sannikov and Neklyayev, accusing them of being stalking horses for Russia.
* Yaroslav Romanchuk, 44.
Deputy head of the liberal united civic party, Romanchuk was known as an economic analyst until his candidacy for the presidency emerged. He supports a market economy model.
* Nikolai Statkevich, 54.
A retired colonel, Statkevich has headed the Belarussian social-democrat party since the mid-1990s. At the end of the 90s, he headed the opposition's biggest street rallies. He says he is not taking the election seriously, but sees it "as a good reason to bring people out on to the streets."
* Vitaly Rymashevsky, 35.
One of the leaders of the Belarussian Christian democratic party, Rymashevsky has been an active participant in opposition street protests in recent years. (Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Maria Golovnina)