President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus is seeking a sixth term in an election he is both tipped to win but which is also likely to be his most difficult challenge yet.
He previously won elections with a landslide but the votes were condemned by election observers.
This time, however, he has a prominent rival in a 37-year-old who runs instead of her imprisoned husband.
Belarus has also seen major opposition protests and a row with Russia.
President Lukashenko, 65, and sometimes called Europe’s last dictator, was first elected in 1994.
In the last ballot in 2015, he was declared the winner with 83.5% of the vote. There were no serious challengers and election observers reported problems with voting and tabulation.
So will this vote be different?
Probably not. President Lukashenko is usually expected to win again. But the vote is being closely watched amid growing signs of frustration over his leadership.
The campaign has seen the emergence of opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former teacher who became a stay-at-home mom until she was thrown into the political spotlight.
Her husband was arrested and barred from registering for the vote so she went in to take his place.
“People are waking up and rediscovering their self-esteem,” she told AFP in a new interview. But she also said she expected the election to rig.
President Lukashenko has dismissed Tikhanovskaya as a “poor little girl”, manipulated by foreign “puppet masters”.
Tens of thousands braved an escalating breakdown of the opposition last month to take part in a protest in the capital Minsk last month, the largest such demonstration in a decade.
Hundreds of protesters have been held since May, say human rights activists.
Prior to the vote, Tikhanovskaya’s team said her campaign manager had been arrested and would not be released until Monday.
Does anyone else drive?
There are three other candidates:
- Anna Kanopatskaya, a former Member of Parliament who won a rare seat for the opposition in the 2016 parliamentary elections
- Sergei Cherechen, leader of the Social Democratic Party
- Andrei Dmitriyev, co-chair of the Tell the Truth movement, a campaign group that has been attacked by the authorities
Two key opposition figures were prevented from driving and threw their weight behind Tikhanovskaya’s campaign.
Noisy defiance when choosing looms
By Abdujalil Abdurasulov, BBC News, Minsk
The quiet streets of Minsk sporadically break from the sound of drivers buckling their car horns. Some flew a flag with a red stripe on the white background – the symbol used by the opposition.
Expressing disagreement is dangerous in Belarus, but activists are still making noise despite a breakdown. People can also be detained for playing the wrong music, which happened to two DJs at a government-sponsored event in Minsk earlier this week.
It is this resistance that makes the choice, if not unpredictable, at least the most challenging for Alexander Lukashenko.
Since the election campaign began in May, more than 2,000 people have been arrested, according to the Human Rights Center Viasna.
Early voting began on August 4, and monitoring groups say their volunteers have often been prevented from observing the vote and even arrested.
Rumors have spread that the government will shut down mobile networks on Sunday to hide mass falsification of the results.
What else happens?
Last month, Belarus arrested more than 30 Russian citizens and accused them of planning violent protests with members of the opposition.
Russia has denied the allegations in a statement issued Friday stating “Similar, baseless allegations concerning Russia’s intelligence have been made more than once.
Despite the apparent divide, some analysts say Russia would like to see President Lukashenko win but is weakened by the vote to force him into closer ties.
Three Russian opposition activists were arrested on Saturday as they traveled to Belarus to follow the vote, the group said.
Anger against Lukashenko’s government has been driven in part by the response to the coronavirus.
The president has downplayed the outbreak and advised citizens to drink vodka and use saunas to fight the disease.
Belarus, with a population of 9.5 million, has had almost 70,000 confirmed cases and 600 deaths.