March 19 (Bloomberg) -- Belarus opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich told thousands of his supporters gathered in the center of the capital, Minsk, that today's presidential election must be annulled because polling was rigged.
``We will demand that this election be recognized as invalid, including by international organizations,'' Interfax cited Milinkevich as telling the crowd of some 10,000.
Milinkevich described as a ``lie'' exit polls by state- licensed organizations EKOOM and the Belarus Committee of Youth Organizations which showed the incumbent, President Alexander Lukashenko, with between 81 percent and 84.2 percent of the vote against 2 percent to 6 percent for Milinkevich.
Lukashenko, who has governed Belarus since 1994, was able to stand for a third term in office after changing the constitution following a referendum the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized as falling short of democratic standards. The Belarusian Central Electoral Commission is expected to announce the presidential election results between 11.30pm and midnight local time.
``The authorities say that we are only a few, but there are millions of us,'' Milinkevich said at the demonstration.
Balloons and Flags
Protesters of all ages began assembling on October Square, named for the month of the Russian Revolution of 1917 that saw the creation of the Soviet Union, just before polls closed at 8pm. Many carried balloons and flowers and the traditional red and white flag of Belarus which Lukashenko has replaced with a Soviet-style flag.
``I call this immoral,'' said Nikolai Lozovik, secretary of the Central Electoral Commission in advance of the protest, citing opposition calls for women and children to attend the demonstration. ``It's dangerous. That's why the authorities will take steps to bring them to full responsibility.''
Analysts have said they do not expect protests in Belarus to follow the pattern of those in neighboring Ukraine in November 2004, when demonstrators took to the streets of Kiev and forced an election re-run.
``My main concern for election night is that things will run too calmly and controlled -- I don't think the Belarusians are ripe to stage an overthrow,'' said Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics in Washington D.C. in an interview ahead of the election.
Belarus, a former Soviet republic of 10 million people bordered to the west by European Union member Poland, to the east by Russia and by Ukraine to the south, has been criticized by the U.S., the European Union and the United Nations Human Rights Commission for human rights abuses including silencing opponents and restricting media.
The OSCE, which has about 400 election observers posted throughout Belarus, will hold a press conference on the election results tomorrow afternoon.