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Belarus Opposition Calls For Election Boycott
Hardline Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is expected to retain his grip on power as voters go to the polls in the country's parliamentary election - despite opposition calls for a boycott.
The two main opposition parties have urged people to go fishing and mushrooming rather than vote in what they see as a sham exercise to produce a chamber which largely rubber-stamps Mr Lukashenko's directives.
Four days of early voting by students, armed service staff and police in the tightly-controlled country have produced a 19% turnout, according to official figures - suggesting an outcome that would enable Lukashenko to present the election as a genuine democratic process.
Western monitoring agencies have not judged an election in Belarus, ruled by Lukashenko for 18 years, free and fair since 1995.
A former Soviet state farm director once described by the US administration of George W Bush as the last dictator of Europe, Lukashenko cracked down on street protests against his re-election in December 2010.
Scores of his opponents - including several who stood against him - were arrested. Many now either lie low after periods in jail or have fled the country.
Human rights bodies say the run-up to the poll has been marked by arrests and detention of opposition activists.
State-run TV and radio have made no mention of the boycott call. Opposition groups have been prevented from holding street protests or giving out leaflets to support their action.
Anatoly Lebedko, head of the opposition United Civic Party, says his party's leaflets calling on people to take their families to the park, go fishing or stroll in the woods rather than vote have been banned.
Activists who had tried to distribute them were stopped from doing so by police and the leaflets seized, he said.
Lukashenko, touring farms 186 miles from the capital Minsk on Friday, said of the opposition: "They are afraid of going to the people."
He said his opponents were financed by Western groups and did not really want power. "They have been given a lot of cash. They have enough," he said.
While shrugging off the boycott threat, authorities have been unsettled by a genuine lack of interest in the election, one of the most low-key ballots in Belarus since it became independent 20 years ago.
Analysts say the election is not likely to promote any strong personality capable of competing with Lukashenko among the deputies.
"The opposition is virtually broken. It has few resources and there is no real programme," said Belarussian independent political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky.
Despite US and European Union sanctions, which prevent Lukashenko and his inner circle travelling to anywhere in the West, the small country has weathered a currency crisis, largely thanks to Russia, which provided £2.7billion in loans and investments.