Belarus is holding parliamentary elections without the country's main opposition parties, after a boycott was called on the grounds of election irregularities and illegal detentions.
Polls opened at 8:00am local time (05:00 GMT) on Sunday, and are expected to close 12 hours later.
The election must fill 110 seats in the Belarusian parliament, which has long been seen as a rubber-stamp body for President Alexander Lukashenko.
"The opposition is virtually broken. It has few resources and there is no real programme"
- Alexander Klaskovsky,
Lukashenko's landslide win in 2010 caused massive protests, which the authorities supressed with force.
The incumbent president has ruled the former Soviet nation of 10 million people since 1994.
Foreign observers have criticised elections in Belarus as being undemocratic, and the US and EU have both imposed economic and travel sanctions on Lukashenko's government over its crackdown on opposition groups and the media.
The country's two main opposition parties have urged people to go fishing and or pick mushrooms, rather than vote in what they see as a sham exercise designed to produced a chamber that would serve to reaffirm the legitimacy of Lukashenko's rule.
Four days of early voting by students, armed service staff and police in the tightly-controlled country have already produced a 19 per cent turnout, according to official figures, and there was no question of the boycott threatening the overall turnout threshold and the validity of Sunday's ballot.
'Low voter enthusiasm'
Scores of Lukashenko's opponents - including several who stood against him - have been arrested. Many now either lie low after periods in jail or have fled the country.
Human rights bodies say the run-up to Sunday's 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 timid action.
"These are all banned," said Anatoly Lebedko, head of the opposition United Civic Party, gesturing to a pile of leaflets on his desk which called on people to take their families to the park, go fishing or stroll in the woods rather than vote.
Activists who had tried to distribute them were stopped from doing so by police and the leaflets seized, he said.
His party posted a video on YouTube featuring activists gathering mushrooms, playing chess and reading books in a park - all alternatives to going to vote.
Demonstration broken up
Lukashenko, touring farms 300 km from the capital Minsk on Friday, said of the opposition: "They are afraid of going to the people."
He alleged that his opponents were financed by Western groups.
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.
Opposition activists say that many higher education students were told to go and vote, sometimes under threat of losing their subsidised accommodation.
Many senior opposition figures have dropped out of sight following the 2010 police crackdown including Andrei Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister, and Vladimir Neklyayev who heads the Tell the Truth movement. Both of them ran against Lukashenko in 2010 and subsequently spent time in jail.
Another well-known political personality, Alexander Milinkevich, who ran against Lukashenko for president in 2006, sought to register as a candidate in Sunday's election but was disqualified from doing so for technical reasons.
Earlier this week, state security police broke up a small demonstration urging people to cook borshch - beetroot soup - instead of voting. Several activists were arrested as well as press photographers covering the event. Some of the journalists were released after about two hours.
"The opposition is virtually broken. It has few resources and there is no real programme," said Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent political analyst.
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|William A. Cook|