Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has led the eastern European country for more than two decades, was widely expected to be re-elected to another five-year term on Sunday.
Around a third of voters cast their ballots ahead of election day, the Electoral Commission reported Saturday, prompting concerns from opposition representatives, who said undue pressure had been placed on civil servants, students and hospital patients to vote early.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has criticized previous Belarusian elections for security gaps in pre-voting.
Many Belarusians see the country’s economic problems and the deadly pro-Russian rebellion in neighbouring Ukraine as reason enough to re-elect the incumbent in view of stability.
A September survey by a respected Belarusian pollster, the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, forecast that Lukashenko would get 64 per cent of the vote.
The strongest opposition candidate, Tatiana Korotkevich of the Tell the Truth party, was predicted to get 25 per cent.
Korotkevich told the Meduza news site that she would be happy to get 20 per cent of the vote.
“When we began the campaign, I had a rating of 2 per cent. It would be strange to say that we want to win,” she said in the interview.
“On the other hand, we have already won because my rating rose to 18 per cent even before I embarked on the campaign trail, and now it should be much higher. We have done the impossible, considering the complicated conditions in which we are working,” she added.
The ballot is being held just days after Belarusian author and investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature.
A strident voice against the Belarusian regime, Alexievich fled the country in 2000, but was able to move back more than a decade later.
Speaking in Berlin on Saturday, the 67-year-old said that Lukashenko was sure to win. She called to mind a saying by former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin that it doesn’t matter who votes, just who counts the votes.
“For freedom, you need free people, and we don’t have those yet,” she said.
The Nobel Prize obliged her to work for democracy and freedom: “Being disappointed or exhausted is not an option any more,” she said.
She said Lukashenko had in fact called her personally to congratulate her on her win. “It was a little odd,” she said.
The opposition hopes they will benefit from Alexievich’s win in Sunday’s polls, but that remains doubtful.
She said the opposition was riven by internal strife. “That is one of the reasons I don’t feel part of the opposition,” she said.
The last presidential election, in 2010, was overshadowed by mass riots in Minsk after the vote.
Blamed for that unrest, three of the candidates – including the runner-up, Andrei Sannikov – were sentenced to between five and six years in prison.
The upcoming election is not expected to see similar protests. Recent oppositions rallies have drawn relatively meagre crowds.
The election comes as Belarus’ relations with the European Union have improved. EU sources said Friday that the bloc was preparing to temporarily ease sanctions on the country.
Belarus, which has often been called Europe’s last dictatorship, has boosted international ties by releasing political prisoners and contributing to peace deals for the Ukraine crisis.