By Richard Balmforth and Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus's President Alexander Lukashenko called opposition leaders "cowards" after they urged people to go mushrooming rather than vote in an election set to reinforce the hardline leader's grip on the ex-Soviet country.

"They are cowards who have nothing to say to the people," Lukashenko - a populist who has run the country of 9.5 million with an iron fist since 1994 - told journalists after voting at a Minsk polling station where an orchestra turned out to play.

The two main opposition parties see the election as a sham exercise to produce a 110-seat chamber which largely rubber-stamps Lukashenko's directives.

Opposition parties, the United Civic Party and the Belarussian People's Front, said anyone voting would be casting a ballot for his leadership as a whole and would be validating the detention of political prisoners and election fraud.

But students, armed service staff and police voting had already produced a 26 percent turnout, official figures showed, and there was no question of the boycott threatening the overall turnout threshold and the validity of Sunday's ballot.

The outcome will enable Lukashenko to present the election as a genuine democratic process. Western monitoring agencies have not judged an election in Belarus free and fair since 1995.

Defending his 18-year-long rule and intolerance of dissent, the former Soviet state farm boss, once described by the U.S. administration of George W. Bush as Europe's last dictator, said on Sunday: "We don't need revolutions and shake-ups."

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has fielded 330 observers for the election and is expected to give its verdict on the election on Monday.

"If this time round there is doubt cast on the choice of the Belarussian people then I don't know what standards will be good enough in future elections," Lukashenko, who was accompanied by his 7-year-old son Kolya, said.

Asked about possible Western recognition for the vote, he said he hoped "for the best". "We don't hold elections for the West. The main architect is the Belarussian people," he said.

Lukashenko's relations with the United States and the European Union, which were never good, nose-dived when he cracked down on street protests against his re-election in December 2010.

Scores of his opponents - including several who stood against him - were arrested. Many now either lie low after periods in jail or have fled the country.

ARRESTS, DETENTIONS

Human rights bodies say the run-up to Sunday's poll - inconsequential though it is - has been marked by arrests and detention of opposition activists.

State-run television 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 action.

"These are all banned," said Anatoly Lebedko, head of the United Civic Party, gesturing on Saturday 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 were seized, he said.

His party posted a video on YouTube featuring activists gathering mushrooms, playing chess and reading books in a park - all as alternatives to going to polling stations to vote.

Anatoly, a 50-year-old computer programmer who cast his vote at a central polling station in a high school building, said: "I am hoping for new deputies in parliament who suit me better in their work." Referring to the opposition boycott, he said: "I don't condemn them. In their situation, they considered this the right thing to do."

Yuri, a teacher of about the same age, was more severe in his comments about the opposition. "The country does not need these people. I consider it normal for a person to take part in the public life of our country," he said.

While shrugging off the boycott threat, authorities have been unsettled by a genuine lack of interest in one of the most low-key ballots since Belarus became independent 20 years ago.

Earlier this week Belarussian state television rejigged its programs to show footage of people enthusiastically casting their ballots in early voting which started last Tuesday.

Opposition activists say many students in higher-education were told to go and vote, sometimes under threat of losing their subsidized 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.

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 news photographers covering the event. Some of the journalists were released after about two hours.

Analysts say that the election is not likely to promote any strong personality among deputies capable of competing with Lukashenko. Previous parliaments have initiated very little legislation independent of the presidency.

Despite U.S. and EU sanctions, which prevent Lukashenko and his inner circle travelling to anywhere in the West, the small country has weathered a currency crisis which drained it of dollars and caused two big devaluations.

This was largely thanks to Russia, which provided $4.5 billion in loans and investments in exchange for access to industrial assets such as pipelines pumping Russian gas to Europe. With the deterioration in relations with the West, Belarus has moved closer to Russia with which it has an open border and shares a common air defense network.

(Editing by Louise Ireland)