Belarusans voted in favor of scrapping presidential term limits, the Central Elections Commission chief said Monday, citing partial results. Ending the limits would allow the country's authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, to seek a new term in 2006.
Opposition leaders said the vote was rigged in order to allow Lukashenko, often branded as Europe's last dictator, to stay in power. He has led the former Soviet republic since 1994.
The chairwoman of the election commission, Lidiya Ermoshina, said partial results from all districts showed that voters were approving the referendum. She did not give an overall figure and said the percentage of ballots counted in various districts ranged from 30 percent to 60 percent.
A final tally was expected later Monday.
Controversy arose after a government-endorsed exit poll was released showing the measure passing, while polls were still open. Under Belarusan law, the results of exit polls cannot be announced until after voting ends to avoid influencing voters who have not cast their ballots.
State television broadcast the exit poll results throughout the day, and Ermoshina insisted election law had not been violated.
The European Union and the United States had previously expressed strong doubts that the vote, in which Belarusans also cast ballots to fill the largely powerless 110-seat House of Representatives, would meet democratic standards.
Election officials said turnout in the capital, Minsk, was 81.62 percent. They said they did not have data for the rest of Belarus.
Lukashenko, 50, whose second term expires in September 2006, has not said whether he would run again, but he is widely seen as wanting to hold on to power.
"Turn to your own problems and resolve those," Lukashenko said of the West on Sunday. "You don't need to worry so much about us."
At a polling station in Minsk, many voters expressed dismay at Lukashenko's move to stay in power by changing the constitution.
"I saw them on television every night telling me to be a patriot and make the right choice," said 40-year-old Nikolai Glozkov. "I am a patriot, but right now our country is standing in place and not moving forward, so I voted against."
Yulia, 42, who declined to give her last name, cast a "yes" vote in the village of Zhukov Lug. "We support Lukashenko. Why shouldn't we? Life is getting better," she said.
A journalist for Russia's Channel One television, who had co-written a book critical of Lukashenko, was found badly beaten at a Minsk hospital late Sunday, hours after police detained him after accusations that he had attacked two people outside a cafe, said opposition journalist Svetlana Kalinkina.
The journalist, Pavel Sheremet, previously worked in Belarus's opposition media and had spent months in jail for his reporting. The Interfax news agency cited Interior Minister Vladimir Naumov as saying he was detained Sunday for hooliganism, but Kalinkina said he was attacked.