Voting begins in Belarus election

Voters in Belarus are going to the polls in parliamentary elections which the authorities say will be the most free in the country's history.

Around 70 opposition candidates have been allowed to run for parliament, which is dominated by President Alexander Lukashenko's supporters.

But correspondents say the poll is unlikely to challenge the president.

Mr Lukashenko, who has been in office since 1994, has been condemned by the US as the last dictator in Europe.

But he has insisted that the vote will meet democratic standards and has said he hopes some opposition candidates win seats.

All 110 seats of the lower house of parliament in Belarus are currently occupied by politicians who back Mr Lukashenko.

The opposition has united into two blocs for the election, having had no success in the 2004 poll. Most opposition groups boycotted the previous election in 2000.

The BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse in Minsk says opposition posters have been on display in the capital but that "suggestions that the regime has foresworn its authoritarian ways may be premature".

Analysts have said the election campaign has been lacklustre, and that opposition parties have had little or no access to the mass media.

'Fraudulent' polls

Hundreds of European observers are in Belarus to monitor the poll.

They have expressed concern over some electoral procedures, including the opening of polling stations in the week before the election, which is viewed as a vote-rigging technique.

Observers do not yet know how much access they will have to the actual vote counting process.

As he cast his vote, opposition leader Alexandr Kozulin said he was taking part "to show the international community that the elections are fraudulent".

He said he had "a lot of facts and evidence" to prove the claim.

Correspondents say Mr Lukashenko has been trying to improve relations with the West as his ties cool with neighbouring Russia.

European and American diplomats have suggested that sanctions against Belarussian companies could be lifted if the election is conducted well.

Mr Kozulin said this would mean the Belarus government would have to introduce "concrete actions and real changes for the democratisation of Belarussian society".



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