Belarus has voted in an election pitting President Alexander Lukashenko against a former teacher who has emerged from obscurity to challenge the man who has ruled the country for a quarter of century.
Lukashenko, 65, is almost certain to win a sixth consecutive term but could face a new wave of protests amid anger over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy and his human rights record.
A crackdown on the opposition could hurt his attempts to mend fences with the West amid fraying ties with traditional ally Russia, which has tried to press Belarus into closer economic and political union.
A former Soviet collective farm manager, Lukashenko has ruled since 1994.
He faces a surprise rival in Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, a former English teacher who entered the race after her husband, an anti-government blogger who intended to run, was jailed.
Her rallies have drawn some of the biggest crowds since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and on Sunday she arrived at a polling station with hundreds of supporters chanting her name.
She expressed hope for a free election.
Human rights groups say more than 1300 people have been detained in the crackdown, including independent election observers and members of Tikhanouskaya's campaign team.
After casting his vote, Lukashenko denied imposing repressive measures as "fake news or far-fetched accusations" and said he did not regard Tikhanouskaya's camp as a threat.
"They are not worth enough to carry out any repression against them," he said.
Foreign observers have not judged an election to be free and fair in Belarus for a quarter of a century and Lukashenko has warned protesters against taking to the streets after the vote.
In possible anticipation of unrest, local media reported squares being blocked off by the authorities in Minsk and the presence of some soldiers on the capital's outskirts.
Social media networks experienced disruption.
Wedded to a Soviet-style economic model, Lukashenko has struggled to raise incomes and living standards in recent years.
He also faced anger over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which he dismissed as a "psychosis" while suggesting drinking vodka and playing ice hockey as remedies.
Australian Associated Press