Early voting begins in stormy Belarus presidential vote

Strongman leader Lukashenko facing leading rival Tikhanovskaya

(ANSA-AFP) - MINSK, 04 AGO - Early voting began in Belarus on Tuesday ahead of a presidential election in which strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko will seek a sixth term after barring his main rivals from running. The 65-year-old has ruled over the ex-Soviet country wedged between Russia and Europe with an authoritarian grip for 26 years and has cracked down on the country's emboldened opposition in the lead-up to Sunday's election. His leading rival, 37-year-old Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, is running in place of her jailed husband and has drawn massive crowds at rallies across the country in an unprecedented display of frustration with Lukashenko's rule. The central elections commission on Tuesday said that the country's almost seven million eligible voters could cast ballots at 5,767 polling stations set up in public spaces including medical facilities and army barracks and at 44 polling stations abroad. Independent observers claim the authorities put pressure on public-sector employees to vote for Lukashenko-friendly candidates during the early voting period and carry out widespread falsifications before the main election day. Tikhanovskaya has called on her supporters to vote on Sunday, the last day of polling, to avoid manipulation before the count and to wear a white bracelet so independent monitors can easily identify them. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which carries out international election and war monitoring, has not recognised any elections in Belarus as free and fair since 1995.


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