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Strongman Alexander Lukashenko was set to keep his forces in power Sunday as ex-Soviet Belarus elected a parliament in polls the united opposition refused to recognise even before they closed.

With the man branded Europe's last dictator keen to show off his democratic credentials and avoid a re-run should turnout dip below 50 percent, a barrage of state TV spots urged citizens to cast their ballots.

But despite the state message polling stations looked empty, and even the head of Central Election Committee admitted voting was "weak", confirming the lack of interest in a process in which most candidates already work for the state.

At a polling station in one of the capital's schools, pensioner Alla said she had voted for the incumbent pro-Lukashenko deputy in her district, but confessed she knew little about him or what he had done in the past four years.

"I haven't heard anything about his activities over the past term, but I think he is worthy of representing me," she told AFP.

Lukashenko, who arrived at his polling station with his young son Kolya in tow, praised the "calmness" of the polls: "There is nothing to criticise so far," he told journalists.

"They should envy our boring elections. We don't need any revolutions or upheavals," the 18-year presidential veteran said,

Nearly two years after unleashing a crackdown on demonstrators who dared question the scale of his election to a fourth term, Lukashenko faces hardly a challenge from his scattered and weakened foes.

Most opposition groups called for a boycott and pulled their candidates out of the race a week ago, telling people to protest by staying at home or even going fishing on election day.

But the authorities still appeared to be taking no chances, with about a dozen protesters arrested in the past week and thousands of flyers calling for a boycott confiscated.

At a press conference Sunday, opposition leaders proclaimed the election unfair, lacking in transparency, and undemocratic.

"Belarus authorities did not take the opportunity for democratic reform, did not change the electoral laws, did not free political prisoners, did not let the opposition into voting committees, used force against the opposition, and censored candidates," Belarus National Front party leader Alexei Yanukevich declared.

"This gives us the right not to recognise the results of the vote now, regardless of the outcome," a statement signed by five anti-Lukashenko groups said.

The last legislative polls in 2008 were swept by government forces, a scenario almost certain to play itself out again.


The outgoing parliament, which spent the term rubber-stamping legislation almost exclusively issued by the president's office, drafted and passed only four largely inconsequential bills of its own.

The political stagnation and erosion of the country's economy in 2011 has prompted Lukashenko's popularity to slip to less than 30 percent this summer from the 53 percent he enjoyed going into his last election in December 2010.

Facing economic sanctions and a travel ban from the West over rights abuses, Lukashenko's regime has instead moved closer to its historic ally Russia, resisting calls for economic and electoral reforms.

Sixteen people held in jail since 2010 and recognised by local groups as political prisoners include one of the presidential rivals of the man whom supporters tenderly call "Batka," or Dad.

Reflecting their dismal morale, the opposition says it will not call for street protests Sunday because of a lack of public interest in the ballot.

More than 270 observers from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly are monitoring the polls, which close at 1700 GMT.

AFP, photo by fotostelefonorojo