Belarus begins early voting in tense poll

ISN SECURITY WATCH (Wednesday, 15 March: 12.24 CET) - Belarus began advance voting for presidential elections on Tuesday night, as the government urged the electorate to turn out to vote in a poll in which opposition parties largely have been denied any representation.

As many as 30 per cent of the electorate usually take part in early voting, and the opposition fears those ballots could be manipulated.

Opposition expressed concern over possible ballot-stuffing and multiple voting at unguarded and unmonitored polling stations, according to news reports.

The main opposition candidate, Alexander Milinkevich, told reporters in Minsk that he had urged his supporters to refrain from early voting, telling them "your votes will simply be stolen".

Election commission officials shrugged off opposition concerns.

"Any citizen who is entitled to vote may come to the polling station and cast a ballot ahead of time without giving reasons," Nikolai Lozovik, secretary of the Belarus Electoral Commission, told Itar-Tass news agency.

As voting started, authorities detained at least three more Milinkevich's supporters and aides, charging them with organizing unsanctioned demonstrations.

It brings the number of opposition activists arrested during the election campaign to more than 300.

On Monday, a court in Belarus sentenced a group of political activists to up to 15 days in prison for participating in unauthorized rallies. Some 20 activists, were detained on Sunday in Minsk.

Also on Tuesday, the government ordered eight members of a Scandinavian team of unofficial election observers to leave the country, accusing them of breaking a law that bans conducting opinion polls in Belarus.

Last week, the authorities refused to grant observer status to an EU delegation at the 19 March presidential elections. Observers from Georgia, where a "color revolution" ousted the country's long-time leader, were also barred from entering the country.

Recent opinion polls suggest that President Aleksandar Lukashenko will win a landslide victory after already having ruled the country for 12 years. Lukashenko changed the constitution to allow him to run for a third term.

Western governments have warned that the poll will not be free and fair.

(By ISN Security Watch staff, RFE/RL, Itar-Tass)