MINSK, Belarus -- Belarusians overwhelmingly approved a referendum on scrapping presidential term limits, the Central Elections Commission announced today, allowing the authoritarian leader of this former Soviet republic to seek a new term in 2006.
Opposition members asserted that the vote yesterday was rigged to allow Alexander Lukashenko, often branded as Europe's last dictator, to stay in power. He has led the nation of 10 million since 1994.
Elections commission chairwoman Lidiya Ermoshina announced early today that the preliminary tally of all ballots indicated that more than 77 percent of the voters approved dropping the term limits and that nationwide turnout was nearly 90 percent.
''It is a convincing victory," Ermoshina said. ''I consider it an elegant victory."
Controversy arose after a government-endorsed exit poll showing the measure passing was released while the polls were still open. Under Belarusian law, exit poll results cannot be announced until voting is over to avoid influencing those who have not cast ballots.
State television broadcast the exit poll results throughout yesterday, and Ermoshina insisted that the election law had not been violated.
The European Union and the United States had previously expressed strong doubts that the vote yesterday, in which Belarusians also cast ballots to fill the largely powerless 110-seat House of Representatives, would meet democratic standards. Results of the legislative election were not expected until later today.
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.
He has led the nation on an anti-West, isolationist path since he was first elected president in 1994. Washington and the 25-nation EU have refused to recognize Belarus's previous parliamentary and presidential elections, saying they were neither free nor fair.
''Turn to your own problems and resolve those," Lukashenko said yesterday in comments aimed at Western countries.
''You don't need to worry so much about us."
Lukashenko's government has cracked down on dissent, harassed the opposition and the independent media, maintained an inefficient, Soviet-style central economy, and has been suspected of involvement in the disappearance of four opposition figures.
At a polling station in Minsk, many early 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 Nikolai Glozkov, 40. ''I am a patriot, but right now our country is standing in place and not moving forward, so I voted against."
Yulia, a 42-year-old woman who declined to give her last name, cast a ''yes" vote in the village of Zhukov Lug. ''We support Lukashenko," she said. ''Why shouldn't we? Life is getting better."