By Andrei Makhovsky
MINSK (Reuters) - An exit poll predicted Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko would win almost 75 percent of the vote in an election held on Sunday, and the long-term leader dismissed opponents' threats to protest against the outcome.
The 56-year-old former state farm director has ruled the ex-Soviet republic with an iron fist since 1994 and, challenged only by an assortment of disorganized opponents, is poised for a fourth five-year term.
Lukashenko won backing at the 11th hour from Moscow after being vilified on Russian television for weeks and he seems set to continue a policy of playing off Russia against the West.
The conduct of the vote, the margin of Lukashenko's victory, and his handling of opposition protests could decide how far the European Union decides to engage the country of 10 million people on its eastern flank.
The country serves as a buffer between Russia and NATO and a transit route for Russian gas heading to European consumers.
Nine candidates were running against Lukashenko. Core opponents, including the Tell the Truth movement of Vladimir Neklyayev and Belarussian nationalists, plan to call supporters out into the freezing October Square on Sunday evening in protest at what they say was heavy vote rigging.
Lukashenko secured more than 80 percent of the vote in 2006. An early exit poll by EcooM, a pro-government research body, on Sunday foresaw a share of 74.7 percent of the vote going to Lukashenko.
The EU, which for years treated Lukashenko as a pariah, is now suggesting financial aid could be in the offing for Belarus if there is at least a veneer of democracy in the election this time round.
And though state security forces gave a warning that they would crack down on attempts to "whip up tension," analysts expect the authorities to take a softer line with demonstrators than they have in the past.
Nonetheless, truck loads of riot police arrived at October Square on Sunday afternoon, several hours before protest rallies were due to start, an eyewitness said.
Lukashenko, appearing before journalists at a polling station, scoffed at the opposition and played down the likely impact of their protests.
"Don't worry, there will be nobody on the square," he said.
SON CASTS BALLOT
Lukashenko was accompanied by his third son, 6-year-old Nikolai, who cast the ballot for his beaming father in the full glare of television cameras.
But political fervor was generally in short supply on the broad, snow-laden avenues of the capital Minsk.
Lukashenko crushed dissent harshly in the early years of his rule, jailing opponents and muzzling the media. He was dubbed Europe's 'last dictator' by the Bush administration.
This time round, relations with Belarus's chief benefactor Russia have been frayed as the Kremlin reined in energy subsidies underpinning the Belarussian command economy.
But reconciliation came last week in the form of an oil and gas pricing deal -- extinguishing any glimmer of opposition hope that Russia might withhold its endorsement.
Russia agreed to drop duties on oil exports to Belarus and keep natural gas prices unchanged next year.
The EU, now using more carrot than stick to try to loosen up Lukashenko's authoritarian rule, will be watching carefully the verdict on Monday of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe which has fielded a small army of election monitors across the snow-bound country.
The OSCE has denounced past Belarussian elections as neither free nor fair, though commentators say the verdict may be more nuanced this time.
"I don't want to vote for Lukashenko but I don't know anything about the others. Maybe I'll vote for the 'against everyone' candidate," said Olga, a 34-year-old teacher, shortly before she went to vote.
Lukashenko's often harsh action against political opponents has been cleverly balanced by a policy of generous welfare and pensions.
Referred to as 'batka' (father) by many people, his man-of-the-people style goes down well with those nostalgic for the security of the Soviet era for whom he represents a safe pair of hands.
"I voted for Lukashenko. We've been 16 years with him already," said Lyudmila, a factory worker in her 50s.
Polling stations were due to close at 8 p.m. (1 p.m. EST).
(Writing by Richard Balmforth; editing by Philippa Fletcher)