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Fate of 'last dictator in Europe' up for grabs in Belarus election

By Mila Sanina, CNN
People cast their votes during the presidential election near Minsk, Belarus, on Sunday. The nation is a former Soviet Republic.
People cast their votes during the presidential election near Minsk, Belarus, on Sunday. The nation is a former Soviet Republic.
  • The race will determine the fate of President Alexander Lukashenko
  • Lukashenko is regarded as "the last dictator in Europe" by U.S. lawmakers
  • Lukashenko is running against nine other candidates

(CNN) -- Voters in Belarus head to the polls Sunday to cast their ballots in presidential elections.

The race will determine the political fate of Alexander Lukashenko, regarded as "the last dictator in Europe" by U.S. lawmakers.

Lukashenko, who has been in office since 1994, is running against nine other candidates, according to the Central Election Commission.

National polls show that he enjoys wide support of the electorate.

Andrei Sannikov, a former diplomat who wants to see Belarus as a member of the European Union, is one of the main opposition leaders. The two others are Yaroslav Romanchuk and Vladimir Neklyaev.

Economist Romanchuk, a candidate from the United Civil Party, has been prolific in publicizing his views on economic reforms.

Lukashenko's other opponent, Neklyaev, runs a social campaign "Tell the Truth!" He was arrested for participating in public protests earlier this year and later released.

According to the electoral commission, the official election day is December 19, but early voting was held between Tuesday and Saturday for voters unable to go to the polls Sunday.

Preliminary results show that at least 10 percent of eligible voters cast their votes in the early elections.

On December 4, state television broadcast live pre-election debates for the first time since the 1994 presidential race. Lukashenko and Neklyaev chose not to participate.

The contestants were also allowed two half-an-hour slots on the prime-time national television to address the Belarusians, according to a news release from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. All candidates except for Lukashenko used this opportunity during the campaign.

Legislation of Belarus allows presidential candidates to campaign until the day before the elections. However, during the Sunday elections, all public events have been banned, said official news agency BelTa.

Protests are not allowed in the aftermath of the election either. According to BelTa, organizers of public events must receive official permission 15 days before holding a public event.

"No organization has applied for the permission to the Minsk City Council," Central Election Commission chairwoman Lidia Yermoshina told BelTa. Any social activity will be deemed illegal, the news agency said.

In 2006, security forces cracked down on protesters in the aftermath of the elections, fearing the replication of a Color Revolution in Belarus. In neighboring Ukraine, Orange Revolution deposed the regime of Leonid Kuchma two years earlier and the 2005 Tulip Revolution in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan brought down president Askar Akayev and his government.

The Central Electoral Commission issued a statement Wednesday saying that it had accredited 1,015 international observers.

Many remain skeptical despite the unprecedented number of contestants and international observers invited to participate in the elections.

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has repeatedly expressed concerns over the status of civil and political rights in Belarus.