Polls opened Sunday in Belarus as the ex-Soviet state holds a high-stakes presidential election with a female opposition candidate posing the greatest challenge yet to long-ruling strongman Alexander Lukashenko.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mother became an unlikely election candidate after authorities barred from running and jailed her husband, popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky.
She swiftly emerged as Lukashenko's strongest rival and her rallies drew tens of thousands of supporters across the country.
Her presidential bid gave rise to an informal new protest movement, with many dreaming of change in the country of 9.5 million people led for the last 26 years by 65-year-old Lukashenko.
Political observers said there is little doubt that Lukashenko, who is seeking a sixth term, would rig Sunday's vote in the absence of international observers.
More than 41 percent of votes had already been cast in several days of early voting, the central electoral commmission reported, with observers saying this facilitated falsifications.
Voters wearing facemasks began casting ballots at a Minsk polling station early Sunday, an AFP reporter saw. Some wore white bracelets after Tikhanovskaya urged her supporters to wear them.
There was a heavy police presence after detentions of protesters on Saturday evening and Prosecutor-General Alexander Konyuk urged voters to be "reasonable" and not take part in unsanctioned protests, Belta state news agency reported.
Tikhanovskaya, who joined forces for her campaign with the wife of one barred opposition chief and the campaign manager of another, said she would not call on her supporters to protest after the vote.
At the same time she called on law enforcement to refrain from fulfilling "criminal orders" and has urged election officials to count honestly.
- 'New country' -
Speaking to supporters on the eve of the vote, she asked them to do all they could so that Belarusians "wake up in a new country."
"When you see that we have won, celebrate our victory!" she said in a video address.
Tikhanovskaya, who is by far the strongest of Lukashenko's four rivals in voter surveys, has also urged Belarusians to help ward off election fraud by voting late on the main polling day, Sunday.
Ahead of the vote Lukashenko warned that dissent would not be tolerated and that he would not give up his "beloved" Belarus.
"We will not give the country to you," he warned his opponents as he addressed the nation this week.
Lukashenko has sought to galvanise support by warning of outside threats and raising the spectre of violent mobs.
Belarus has detained over 30 Russian mercenaries allegedly planning to destabilise the vote.
The detentions sparked a political crisis with ally Russia, with Moscow urging the men's release and Putin telling Lukashenko that he wants Belarus to stay "stable."
Lukashenko has retained close ties to Moscow, though he often plays Russia and the West against each other.
France, Germany and Poland have urged Lukashenko to ensure a "free and fair" election and allow "independent surveillance of the vote by local observers".
- 'Tired of Lukashenko' -
Belarus has not held polls judged free and fair since 1995 and this time Minsk has not invited observers from the European OSCE observer group for the first time since 2001.
In the past Lukashenko has crushed protests with riot police and hefty jail terms, prompting Western sanctions. Two of his would-be election rivals including Tikhanovskaya's husband were jailed during the current campaign.
Tikhanovskaya says she is not a politician and if she wins she will call fresh elections that will include the entire opposition. On Saturday, authorities arrested her campaign manager and briefly detained one of her two top allies.
Many Belarusians said they hoped polls would lead to change.
A 30-year-old make-up artist from Minsk said she wanted to vote for one of the jailed would-be candidates, Viktor Babaryko, and accused Lukashenko of clinging to power.
"No one I know will vote for Lukashenko," said the woman who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals.
An electrician from Minsk said he would also vote against Lukashenko.
"I am tired of hearing the same things for the past 26 years," the 60-year-old said on condition of anonymity.