Belarus votes in tense presidential election


Voters have gone to the polls in Belarus today to decide the country's next president.

Tensions are running high amid fears of violence between forces of hard-line incumbent Alexander Lukashenko and his opponents who are pushing for change after 12 years of his rule.

An estimated 300 opposition supporters were detained before the election, with some jailed until after election day. Authorities have seized the print runs of independent newspapers and barred at least a dozen European election observers from the country.

The election campaign was marred by arrests, harassment and accusations of a violent plot.

Opposition supporters are planning to protest this evening against what they say will be fraudulent returns could set them on a collision course with state authorities.

Leaders in Belarus are well aware of the revolutions that swept opposition leaders to power in three former Soviet republics following disputed elections and have banned rallies on election day.

Underlying the election is a Cold War-style struggle for regional influence between Russia and the West, which is seen by Lukashenko's government and its backers in Moscow as a chief culprit in the political upheaval in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.

While Russia's relations with Belarus are sometimes strained, the Kremlin is wary of losing its only ally between its western border and NATO countries, and has signaled approval of a Lukashenko victory.

Western countries have forged close ties with the opposition and made no secret of their contempt for the ruler of what the administration of the United States calls an outpost of tyranny in Europe. It has condemned the campaign as "seriously flawed and tainted."

Early exit polling conducted two hours after the polls opened today showed Lukashenko garnering more than 80 percent of the vote.

A beaming Lukashenko was measured in his comments after casting his vote at a Minsk school.

"We will react appropriately to things depending on the circumstances," he told reporters. "The campaign is proceeding in a calm, ordinary fashion as in previous years."

Since his first election in 1994, Lukashenko has silenced foes and maintained his grip on power through votes dismissed as illegitimate by the opposition and Western governments. Four opponents disappeared in 1999-2000.

While he is a dictator to his opponents and foreign critics, many Belarusians cherish the former collective farm manager who likes to be known as "Batka" - father.

Supporters see Lukashenko, 51, as having brought stability after the uncertainties and suffering that followed the 1991 Soviet collapse. While the landlocked nation is far from prosperous, the economy is growing and salaries are rising - gains critics call unsustainable.

Main opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich has called on Belarusians to protest peacefully after polls close. The government ban on election day rallies has potentially set the stage for a showdown.

The state has mounted a campaign of threats and allegations that it opponents say is aimed to frighten people off the streets and justify the potential use of force against protesters. Security is tight near Oktyabrskaya Square in central Minsk, where protesters are expected to try to gather.

Milinkevich has pledged peaceful protest and suggested demonstrators would not try to force their way onto the square but would gather elsewhere if its is barred by riot police.

Ignored or attacked by blatantly biased state media, his rallies often banned or disrupted, the 58-year-old former physicist says he will not win but is out to show the country that change is possible — and imperative.