MINSK // Belarus went to the polls on Sunday in presidential elections expected to hand a fourth term to its unpredictable strongman Alexander Lukashenko, extending his grip on power for another five years.
Lukashenko, who has been at the helm of this poor former Soviet republic of 10 million for the past 16 years, is running against an array of nine opposition candidates.
The mercurial Lukashenko has in recent months infuriated Russia by seeking to align Belarus closer to the EU but also received last-minute concessions from the Kremlin ahead of the polls.
He is widely expected to sail to victory, extending his grip on power for another five years and the main uncertainty is whether the opposition will manage to bring significant numbers of supporters out onto the streets for protests on Sunday night.
The sidelined opposition candidates hope to muster a large protest on the central square in the capital Minsk after polls close at 8 pm (1800 GMT) later in the day.
To prevent possible rallies, the authorities turned the square into a giant ice rink decorating it with a Christmas tree, the city's largest. And authorities warned that any protests would be firmly put down.
The opposition has said the ice would not prevent them from staging a rally and even came up with a rhyming slogan that calls on supporters to bring bags of salt and sand to the square to battle the ice.
The opposition candidates have already declared the elections fraudulent despite being given more freedom to campaign and access to national airtime for each candidate -- unprecedented measures seen as Lukashenko's attempts to receive recognition from Europe.
"Such a high number of candidates automatically means a run-off," said opposition's Andrei Sannikov as he cast his ballot, "if they tell us there is no run-off it will be deception and lies and we will protest."
Lukashenko will need to garner 50 percent of the vote to claim victory and even opposition supporters say his victory is a foregone conclusion.
The opposition has also repeatedly said they feared the results would be skewed in favour of Lukashenko and denounced the controversial practice of early voting.
Just over 23 per cent of Belarussians voted early, the Central Election Commission said.
"They made us vote early," said Olga, a student who signed up to act as an independent observer at a polling station in the snow-blanketed capital.
"On Saturday we counted 50 people who came in to vote, but then there were 180 ballots in the box, and today the box disappeared," said Olga, who declined to give her last name.
But many in Belarus say they choose stability, scoffing at the opposition's calls to come to the square.
"I voted for Lukashenko. I may have voted for the opposition if it weren't for their appeals to go to protest," said pensioner Valentina, who declined to give her last name.
"That won't lead to anything good, Ukraine is a good example," she said.
State media have accused the opposition of attempting to organise a "colour revolution" similar to mass rallies that ousted the old regime in Georgia and Ukraine, also former Soviet republics, after disputed elections in 2003 and 2004 respectively.
Once accused by the United States of running Europe's "last dictatorship", Lukashenko has earned notoriety for antics such as dressing his young son, reportedly born out of wedlock, in full military uniform for parades -- but also for not tolerating dissent.
US diplomats have referred to Lukashenko as a "clearly disturbed" man who "intends to stay in power indefinitely", according to a WikiLeaks cable published by the Guardian on Friday.
Lukashenko has shown no willingness to cede or share power, instead saying recently that after 16 years in power he only now has the experience to be a real president and warning against protests.
Only the election that brought Lukashenko to power in 1994 was acknowledged by monitors as fair. International observers said the 2001 and 2006 polls fell well short of democratic standards.