Belarus set to give maverick president new term

Maria Antonova

President Alexander Lukashenko on Sunday icily warned the opposition against holding protests as Belarus voted in disputed polls expected to hand the unpredictable strongman a fourth term.

Lukashenko, who has ruled the former Soviet republic of 10 million for the past 16 years, is running against nine opposition candidates in a battle seen as fairer than in previous years but still marred by foul play allegations.

He is widely expected to sail to victory, with the main uncertainty whether the opposition manages to bring significant numbers of supporters out onto the streets for protests Sunday night.

Lukashenko denounced his opponents as he cast his ballot in the snow-blanketed capital with his six-year-old son Kolya, the fruit of an extra-marital relationship who the president describes as his "talisman".

"When the politicians running in the polls say six months in advance that they will be rigged. this means they are simply not ready for these elections and feel that they will lose," he said.

In a potentially controversial move, analytical firm EKOOM published the results of exit polls at the halfway point, predicting Lukashenko would win a crushing 72 percent of the vote and his nearest rival just 6 percent.

The sidelined opposition candidates hope to muster a large protest on the central square in the capital Minsk after polls close at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT) Sunday.

To prevent possible rallies, the authorities turned the square into a giant ice rink, decorating it with a giant Christmas tree.

"What is awaiting supporters of the protest -- read our laws. Everything will be in strict accordance with the law," Lukashenko said. "Do not worry -- there will not be anyone on the square tonight."

But the opposition has said the ice will not prevent them from staging a rally and even came up with a rhyming slogan that calls on supporters to bring bags of salt and sand to the square to battle the ice.

The opposition candidates have already declared the elections fraudulent, despite being given more freedom to campaign and access to national airtime for each candidate than in previous polls in 2001 and 2006.

"Such a high number of candidates automatically means a run-off," said opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov. "If they tell us there is no run-off it will be deception and lies and we will protest."

Lukashenko will need to garner 50 percent of the vote to claim outright victory in the first round.

The opposition has said they feared the results would be skewed in favour of Lukashenko and denounced the controversial practice of early voting.

By 2:00 pm local time (1200 GMT) 65 percent of more than seven million registered voters cast their ballots, the Central Election Commission said. Of those, 23 percent voted before election day.

"They made us vote early," said Olga, a student who signed up to act as an independent observer at a polling station.

"On Saturday we counted 50 people who came in to vote, but then there were 180 ballots in the box, and today the box disappeared," said Olga, who declined to give her last name.

But many in Belarus say they choose stability, scoffing at the opposition's calls to come to protest.

"I voted for Lukashenko. I may have voted for the opposition if it weren't for their appeals to go to protest," said pensioner Valentina, who declined to give her last name.

Yet the looser atmosphere ahead of the vote is seen as a sign that Lukashenko wants the elections to be blessed by Western observers as he seeks closer ties with the European Union.

Lukashenko has in recent months sought to move Minsk away from Russia's orbit, repeatedly sniping at Moscow which shot back with a muck-raking television documentary on him called "The Godfather".


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