MINSK (AFP) - President Alexander Lukashenko was on track to win a fifth consecutive term by a landslide Sunday, exit polls showed, as the Belarussian leader warned critics against contesting the election outcome and ridiculed one of his opponents for being a woman.
The vote was being closed watched by the European Union, with officials indicating the bloc was ready to lift sanctions against the authoritarian leader, regularly accused of rights abuses, if the aftermath of the polls remains incident-free.
Lukashenko, 61, once called Europe's last dictator by Washington, was all but certain to extend his 21-year grip on the landlocked eastern European country with several exit polls on state television giving him more than 80 percent of the vote.
Two hours before polls closed, turnout stood at more than 81 per cent, according to the central election commission.
The last elections in 2010 led to mass street protests against Lukashenko's victory, triggering a crackdown during which a number of leading opposition figures were arrested.
With long-standing opposition leaders barred from standing in Sunday's vote and state media giving Lukashenko uniformly positive coverage, the veteran president ran against three virtual unknowns - only one of whom bothered to campaign.
Lukashenko made light of his challengers on Sunday, claiming to be unsure of their names and saying that one of them, Tatiana Korotkevich, could not run the country because she is a woman.
"The president here has masses of powers, from security to the economy, that so far a person in a skirt cannot carry out," he said.
Lukashenko's incarceration of political opponents has led to his international isolation and the imposition of Western sanctions against him and other Belarussian officials following the disputed 2010 polls.
But European sources said Friday that the bloc was poised to suspend the punitive measures at the end of the month in response to the surprise release in August of the country's last political prisoners.
The mooted EU move has sparked an outcry from Belarussian opposition figures who have spent years protesting Lukashenko's authoritarian ways.
Opposition leader Mikola Statkevich - who was pardoned in August after spending five years in jail - said: "If they are together with this murderer, this criminal, then democracy is just words."
On the eve of the election, the newly-crowned winner of the 205 Nobel Literature Prize, Svetlana Alexievich, warned Europe to beware of Lukashenko, describing his regime as a "soft dictatorship".
While Lukashenko allowed an unauthorised opposition rally in the capital to go ahead without police intervention on Saturday, he warned that he would not tolerate such protests after the vote.
"The polls close at 8:00 pm and I advise you to follow the law," he said. "You know what will happen."
A shrewd operator and exploiter of tensions between Moscow and the West, Lukashenko recently raised his standing with the West by hosting peace talks in Minsk on the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Despite at times prickly relations with Moscow, he and Belarus's Soviet-style planned economy are propped up by Russia, which supplies the country of 9.5 million with discount price energy.
Moscow values Belarus as an ally and buffer against NATO member states such as Poland, even if Lukashenko sometimes publicly disagrees with President Vladimir Putin.
Lukashenko is Europe's longest-serving leader and is believed to be grooming his son, Nikolai known as Kolya, as his successor.
The 11-year-old, who regularly accompanies the president at official engagements, cast his father's ballot for him at a polling station near their home in Minsk.
Lukashenko enjoys a degree of popular support for his folksy, outspoken style and his regime's durability.
Liudmila Vauchok, a six-time Paralympic medallist in cross-country skiing and rowing, said she voted for Lukashenko because he brought "reliability and calm".
"Whatever happens, Belarus is flourishing," Vauchok said. "Our system is established. I wouldn't like to be in the president's place as things are very complicated now. The main thing is for there not to be a war."
"He does not bend to anyone's will, he protects the interests of his people," said retired university teacher Valentina Artyomovna as she bought pastries at a buffet at her polling station.
The buffet served cut-price vodka and put on an accordion concert as part of the authorities' attempt to create a "holiday atmosphere" for election day.
Some voters voiced cautious opposition, however.
"I am voting against everyone," said Tatiana, a jeweller.
"I think we need someone younger - fresh blood. I have nothing against Batka but I wanted someone younger," she said, using Lukashenko's nickname, meaning father.
Marina, a 21-year-old student said she based her choice on the candidates' debate on television, which Lukashenko skipped.
"I hope there will be some economic changes, some reforms that will change the situation," she said.