Belarusians go to polls to elect president

MINSK, Dec. 19 (Xinhua) -- Belarusians went to the polls on Sunday in the fourth presidential election since the country gained independence in 1991, which so far has been claimed valid.

By 2:00 p.m. (1200 GMT), around 65.2 percent of voters had cast their ballots, said the Central Election Commission (CEC). The announcement has thus validated the presidential election held from 8:00 a.m. local time (0600 GMT) to 8:00 p.m. (1800 GMT).

According to the Belarusian electoral law, a presidential election can only be regarded as valid if the turnout exceeds 50 percent.

There were over 6,000 polling stations across the country, where some 7.09 million registered voters were expected to cast their ballots for 10 candidates, including incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko.

Lukashenko was widely expected to secure a fourth term. By 1:00 p.m. (1100 GMT), the exit poll conducted by the ECOOM analytical center showed that Lukashenko was dominantly leading in the election, with 72 percent of votes. His closest rival only gained 6.33 percent of votes.

The poll was conducted at 100 polling stations with some 4,431 voters, according to ECOOM head Sergei Musiyenko.

Around 1,000 international observers who mainly came from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) observed the polls.` Xinhua correspondents at a polling station in Minsk saw that the voting process was in order under the watch of observers.

After casting his vote at the No. 1 polling station during the midday, Lukashenko told reporters that accusations from opposition candidates concerning manipulation of the polls precisely demonstrated their weakness.

"Whether the polls were fair should be judged by relevant institutions ... Only Belarusians can decide the results of the election," he said, adding that he was full of confidence in the results of the election.

Lukashenko said Belarus hoped to maintain "excellent" relationship with Russia and "good" ties with the United States.

As on ties with the European Union (EU), Lukashenko said Belarus has repeatedly voiced its hopes, and the level of bilateral cooperation solely depended on the EU's willingness.

After casting his ballot, Prime Minister Sergei Sidorsky told reporters that he voted for the future stability and development of Belarus.

"The country is making a choice today, the choice for stability, development and the life we have been working for over 15 years," he said.

According to the Belarusian electoral law, the candidate who has won more than 50 percent of the vote shall become president. A second round of polls will be held within two weeks if no candidate passes the 50-percent threshold in the first round.

Those two candidates who garner the most votes in the first round will enter the run-off, during which the one who gathers over 50 percent will become president.

The president has a five-year term and can be reelected for unlimited times.

An early voting was held on Dec. 14-18, allowing those who would not be able to vote on the election day to cast their ballot in advance.

The CEC said earlier Sunday that the turnout of the five-day early voting was 23.1 percent, or 1.62 million people.

CEC head Lidia Yermoshina told reporters that so far no significant incidents have been reported.

She also said observers were divided over the conducting of the presidential election. Some observers said violations occurred during the organization of the polls, while others claimed the voting good and harmonious.

The Belarusian Interior Ministry also said situations were under control during the voting, with no radical incidents reported.

Opposition candidates have pledged to stage a joint "peace rally" in downtown Minsk on Sunday night after the voting was over.

However, Belarusian authorities said any rally with no permission before-hand was illegal.


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