Security forces have cracked down on protesters in Belarus as long-term President Alexander Lukashenko looked set to claim his sixth election win, despite rising discontent with his authoritarian rule and his management of the coronavirus pandemic.
- Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994
- His opponent Svetlana Tikhanouskaya has led huge rallies in the lead-up to the election
- Foreign observers say it’s unlikely it will be a “fair” election result
Thousands of people took to the streets of the capital Minsk and other cities while protesters clapped, shouted “victory”, waved flags and honked car horns in solidarity with the Opposition.
Some built barricades with garbage cans.
Video footage showed helmeted police using water cannon, tear gas and stun grenades as they detained and clashed with protesters.
Police presence in Minsk was heavy throughout the day, and in the evening, police set up checkpoints on the city’s perimeter to check residence permits, apparently worried protesters would come from other cities.
A police prisoner-transport van hit a crowd of people in Minsk, witnesses said, but there were no immediate details of casualties.
Authorities said they had no reports of any injuries from the protests.
Mr Lukashenko’s main opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, made a public appeal for calm.
“I’d like to ask the police and troops to remember that they are part of the people. I ask my voters to prevent provocations,” she said in an appeal through Belarus media.
‘I will believe my own eyes’
Tensions had been rising for weeks ahead of the vote, which saw Mr Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, run against four others.
Officials had already denied two prominent opposition challengers places on the ballot, jailing one on charges he called political and prompting the other to flee to Russia with his children.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya came under heavy pressure over the weekend as eight members of her staff were arrested, and one of her top aides fled the country at the weekend.
She rejected exit polls that indicated an overwhelming win for Mr Lukashenko, saying “I will believe my own eyes — the majority was for us.”
Mr Lukashenko was defiant as he voted earlier in the day.
“Do you want to try to overthrow the Government, break something, wound, offend, and expect me or someone to kneel in front of you and kiss them and the sand onto which you wandered? This will not happen.”
No free and fair elections since 1995, observers say
A former Soviet collective farm manager, the authoritarian Mr Lukashenko has ruled the country since 1994 but has battled a wave of anger over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy and his human rights record.
State-approved exit polls showed him winning 79.7 per cent of the vote while Ms Tsikhanouskaya, a former English teacher who emerged from obscurity a few weeks ago to lead rallies against him, received 6.8 per cent.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya entered the race after her husband, an anti-government blogger who intended to run, was jailed.
Foreign observers have not judged an election to be free and fair in Belarus since 1995.
A harsh response to new protests could hurt Mr Lukashenko’s attempts to mend fences with the West amid fraying ties with traditional ally Russia, which has tried to press Belarus into closer economic and political union.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya’s rallies have drawn some of the biggest crowds since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and on Sunday she arrived at a polling station with hundreds of supporters chanting her name.
Human rights groups say more than 1,300 people were detained in the crackdown ahead of the election, including independent election observers and members of Ms Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign team.