Belarusians have gone to the polls in presidential elections that have prompted the country’s largest opposition rallies since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Alexander Lukashenko, who has consolidated immense power over his 26 years in office, is expected to claim victory after Sunday’s polls, but anger over vote rigging is likely to trigger a backlash.
The opposition candidate for president was forced into hiding the night before challenging the president in the country’s most unpredictable election in a generation.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya left her apartment after police detained two senior staffers and seven other campaign members in what they called an attempt to scare the opposition before the vote.
She re-emerged at a polling station on Sunday afternoon alongside an entourage of campaign staff and journalists who were there for her safety.
“We can’t defend ourselves physically against armed people or the security services,” said Anna Krasulina, her press secretary, in an interview. “This is the most trustworthy defence we have.”
Sparring with journalists at a Minsk polling station, Lukashenko played down the threat posed by a united opposition. “They’re not even worth launching reprisals against,” he said.
In a final appeal before the vote, Tikhanovskaya condemned security services for arresting peaceful demonstrators and called on troops deployed across the city “not to carry out criminal orders”.
“We need changes,” she said in a YouTube video filmed in front of a bay of shuttered windows. “We need a new president.”
Squares near government buildings have been cordoned off, armed troops have been stationed at the city limits and water cannons have been filmed entering the city. Lukashenko, who was subjected to sanctions by the US and the EU for the government’s heavy-handed crackdown on the opposition after elections in 2010, said illegal protests would be met with force.
At the Belarusian State Economic University in the capital, voters streamed into two polling stations on Sunday morning from the city’s unusually quiet streets. Viktor Chonovoy, a vote monitor for the organisation Honest People, was perched on a plastic red chair peering through a window at the ballot box and tallying turnout.
“Nobody is letting me monitor,” he said. “It is just pro-government monitors replacing one another.” He said the early voting results showing 642 ballots cast was more than double the number of voters, indicating ballot stuffing. By late afternoon turnout had hit 73.4%, prompting quips that it would soon surpass 100%.
Several hundred pro-Tikhanovskaya voters met the opposition candidate as she reemerged on Sunday, chanting “Sveta! Sveta!” as she appeared in a white blazer. Supporters said they wanted to see change, a popular slogan for the campaign, and that they thought that Lukashenko had overstayed his time in office.
Zoya Vlasenko, a retired engineer, said she was voting against Lukashenko for her grandchildren’s sake. “I don’t want them to have to leave their homeland,” she said. Her oldest son has already left to work in the US. “But now there’s hope that my grandchildren can stay here.”
Others said they were angry about arrests of activists and the threat of violence against the opposition.
“There are armoured cars on the highway, there are people not even in uniform, in jeans and T-shirts with rifles in their hands,” said Vladimir, a local businessman who came to the polling station with his wife and young son. “It’s scary when you don’t know if someone is a bandit or a member of law enforcement. I’m voting against being afraid.”
Many were pessimistic about the chances of the vote being counted fairly.
Supporters of the government said they wanted to preserve stability under Lukashenko’s strong leadership or were concerned about preserving state benefits.
“We want stability, calm, to keep everything good that we’ve got,” said one pensioner who said they would vote for the president. “Of course I’m voting for Lukashenko, there’s no one else to vote for.”
There were already signs of a crackdown heading into the vote and toward Sunday evening, armoured cars, water cannon and riot police had been reported in the centre of Minsk near the presidential administration.
Local journalists reported problems with Telegram, Twitter, Viber, WhatsApp, and websites associated with opposition parties and platforms for monitoring the vote. Netblocks, a civil society group, said internet connectivity had been “significantly disrupted in Belarus amid presidential elections”.
Lukashenko is facing unprecedented anger over his handling of the economy and a bungled coronavirus response. Before the elections he jailed opposition candidates and targeted foreign allies, accusing Moscow of sending mercenaries to destabilise the country.
Tikhanovskaya was initially a stand-in candidate for her husband, a popular YouTuber jailed earlier in the year. She has grown into an effective campaigner, attracting more than 63,000 people to a rally last month in Minsk, and thousands more in small cities and towns usually dominated by Lukashenko. She has been joined onstage by two other female politicians in a “trio” that has transformed the image of the country’s male-dominated politics.
Tikhanovskaya has said that she does not want to remain in power if she wins, promising to hold free elections within six months, release political prisoners and return the country’s pre-1996 constitution that limited presidents to two terms in office.
More than 40% of Belarusians were reported to have cast ballots in early voting, an unprecedented number that critics say indicate ballot stuffing by the government. The government, meanwhile, has lashed out at efforts to tally the vote.
“They accost voters,” said Lidia Yermoshina, the head of Belarus’s election commissions since Lukashenko’s first victory in 1996. “These are not fighters for democracy. These are people hired by the campaign of a criminal banker.”
One monitor, Anastasia Kadomskaya, 30, said she had managed to count turnout at her Minsk polling station by sitting in front of an open door in view of the ballot box. She said her station’s official turnout matched her own tally of around 17%, less than half of the national average. “You feel colossal pressure and stress at every moment because you have to keep defending your right to watch the vote as a citizen and observer,” she said.