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Lukashenko gearing up for re-election as Belarus heads to the polls

The people of Belarus have been voting for their next president. Alexander Lukashenko, the controversial current leader who has led the eastern European country for more than two decades, is already primed to win.

Polling has been underway in Belarus on Sunday, as Lukashenko - who has been lambasted by many in the West for his dictatorial tendencies - seemed geared to win a fifth term as president.

A third of Belarusians had already cast their votes ahead of election day. Many oppositional figures have critcized the move, seeing it as a sign the elections are rigged. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has also been critical of the move in the past.

Lukashenko, the 61-year-old former leader of a collective farm known to his followers as Batka, or "Daddy," has been criticized by the international community for his suppression of dissident voices and Soviet-style economic policies. However, while he has maintained a close partnership with Russia in his more than 20 years as president, the blustery leader has also made moves suggesting he wants to open up Belarus to the West.

Playing both sides

Though he has been largely dependent on Moscow and isolated from Western Europe, Lukashenko has developed a reputation for successfully playing both sides to his advantage.

Most recently, Lukashenko denied knowledge of a proposed Russian military base to be built on Belarusian soil, in what was largely seen as a swipe at President Vladimir Putin. He also criticized Putin's annexation of Crimea in the Ukraine.

In August, Lukashenko received praise after releasing six political opponents from prison. Largely because of this gesture, the EU has said it plans to temporaily lift some of its sanctions on Belarus, assuming all goes well during Sunday's election.

A history of suppression

Brussels imposed sanctions on Lukashenko's government after it cracked down on protests during the 2010 elections. More than 580 people in the capital of Minsk were jailed after protesting the president's re-election.

In addition, most of his election challengers were also arrested.

Such actions led Washington to refer to Belarus as "Europe's last dictatorship."

blc/jlw (AFP, dpa)

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