Q&A: Belarus presidential polls

Belarus goes to the polls on 19 March to elect a president for the third time since independence in 1991.

The incumbent Alexander Lukashenko is seeking a third five-year term after 12 years in power.

Q: What is the president's role?

The Belarus political system is based on a strong presidency, which was awarded extensive powers following a referendum in 1996.

Another plebiscite in 2004 - which the international community found to be neither free nor fair - removed the two-term limit for any president.

The present Belarus parliament does not have a single opposition member and acts as a rubber stamp for President Lukashenko.

Q: Who is standing?

Apart from President Lukashenko, there are three other contenders.

Alexander Lukashenko (51): President Lukashenko is the first and only president of independent Belarus. A former state farm manager and MP, he swept to power in 1994 on a wave of anti-corruption rhetoric and nostalgia for the defunct Soviet Union.

He has faced international criticism for intolerance of dissent, lack of respect for human rights and restricting civil society.

Alexander Milinkevich (58): The main challenger to President Lukashenko, Mr Milinkevich has been nominated by a coalition of major opposition parties. An intellectual rather than a politician, he is expected to reach out to the broader population beyond the traditional opposition electorate.

He advocates liberal democratic values and market reforms and threatens a civil disobedience campaign if the vote is rigged.

Alexander Kozulin (50): A former university rector, Mr Kozulin was promoted and then sacked by President Lukashenko. He heads the opposition Belarus Social Democratic Party (Hramada).

He started the campaign as a moderate, but then made a radical change in favour of hard-hitting anti-Lukashenko rhetoric.

Syarhey Haydukevich (51): Leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Mr Haydukevich is seen as loyal to President Lukashenko.

His election bid is perceived as a way of ensuring a semblance of pluralism should President Lukashenko's opposition rivals drop out of the poll.

Q: Who can vote?

All Belarus citizens aged 18 and over are eligible to vote. More than half of the 7m registered voters need to turn up for the election to be valid. A candidate needs 50% of the votes cast plus one to win in the first round. Otherwise a second round is held within two weeks.

Q: What are the logistics?

There are 6,627 polling stations (41 abroad), with 74,104 staff on electoral commissions. Polling stations are open for seven hours daily from 14 to 18 March for anyone wishing to vote early. Observers have seen this as a way of manipulating the election.

Q: How has the campaign been conducted?

The EU, US, Council of Europe and Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have all expressed concern about what they regard as intimidation and harassment of opposition campaigners.

Numerous instances of the police attempting to disrupt Mr Milinkevich's election meetings have been recorded.

His election agents have been detained and jailed for "staging unauthorised rallies" while his campaign material has been confiscated.

On 2 March Mr Kozulin was beaten up and detained for several hours by police, raising an international outcry.

Q: What of the media?

Apart from several free TV and radio election broadcasts, the opposition candidates have had no access to the Belarus media, most of which is state-controlled.

President Lukashenko's candidacy has dominated the official media coverage. Despite his pledge not to campaign at all, state television and radio carried live relays over two days from a pro-Lukashenko assembly, during which the incumbent made election promises and announced plans for the next five years.

Q: Will there be observers?

The election will be monitored by 434 CIS and 450 OSCE observers. The Belarus Foreign Ministry has already warned OSCE observers against "interfering" in domestic affairs.

A delegation of EU MPs has abandoned plans to go to Belarus to monitor the poll after its members were refused visas.

Q: What is the West's view?

Neither the EU nor the US are expecting the poll to be free and fair. Both have threatened sanctions if the election is rigged and violence is used against protesters.

In 2005 President George W Bush described Belarus as "the last remaining dictatorship in Europe", while US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice listed Belarus among the "outposts of tyranny".

Q: What is Russia's view?

Russia traditionally backs the Belarus authorities. President Vladimir Putin has so far supported President Lukashenko only in veiled terms, but some other top-level Russian officials have been more outspoken in wishing for a Lukashenko victory.

BBC Monitoring selects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaux abroad.