Belarus: Violent clashes as Europe’s last dictator goes to the polls

Belarus

Europe’s last dictator, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, looks certain to be re-elected for a sixth term come hell or high water amid massed demonstrations in the capital city of Minsk and other cities.

An exit poll for state television on Sunday gave Alexander Lukashenko 79.7% of Sunday’s vote, with Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya second with 6.8%. A political newcomer, Tsikhanouskaya drew large crowds in campaign rallies around Belarus.

Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power in Belarus since 1994, had pledged to crush any protests but thousands of protesters took to the streets of the capital, Minsk, shortly after the exit poll was broadcast. Police were seen arresting and assaulting people.

Tensions have been rising for weeks ahead of Sunday’s vote in the ex-Soviet nation, which initially pitted President Alexander Lukashenko against four candidates. The campaign has generated the country’s biggest opposition protests in years. Opposition supporters say they suspect election officials will manipulate the results of Sunday’s vote to give the 65-year-old Lukashenko a sixth term, AP News reported.

Riot police faced off with opposition protesters, beating some with truncheons and using flash-bang grenades to try to disperse them.

Al Jazeera‘s Step Vaessen, reporting from Minsk, said the capital was “a city filled with anger and frustration” and described “hectic scenes” that “Minsk hasn’t witnessed before”.

“The streets and squares are full of people who are all very angry, calling the election a huge fraud,” said Vaessen.

“They’re very defiant but also very scared because riot police are out in force. They are detaining people right in front of us, so people are spreading around trying to get away from police.”

Late on Sunday, 37-year-old Tsikhanouskaya said she did not trust the poll results showing an overwhelming victory for Lukashenko.

“I believe my eyes, and I see that the majority is with us,” she told a news conference. “We have already won, because we have overcome our fear, our apathy and our indifference.”

Tsikhanouskaya, an English teacher by training and stay-at-home mother, mounted a surprise campaign against Lukashenko after her husband, a popular blogger, was jailed and barred from running.

Tens of thousands of supporters attended her rallies, and many voters wore the opposition’s trademark white bracelets at polling stations on Sunday.

“I want honest elections,” Tsikhanouskaya said outside a polling station in Minsk.

Earlier on Sunday, Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign office said one of her key allies, Veronika Tsepkalo, had left for Russia fearing for her safety. Eight members of her staff were arrested on Saturday.

Tsepkalo’s ex-diplomat husband Valery Tsepkalo was barred from standing. Maria Kolesnikova, campaign chief of ex-banker Viktor Babaryko, was also dropped from the polls and jailed on Saturday but later released.

Belarus, dictator, Alexander Lukashenko
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is the main challenger to Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who is bidding for a sixth term. Photo: Twitter

Tsikhanouskaya said that she is confident in her victory after seeing results from multiple polling stations ‘with no falsifications’ showing her winning.

The head of the Central Elections Commission, Lidia Yermoshina, said early on Monday that partial results from some regions showed Lukashenko with a crushing lead, getting more than 90% of the vote in some districts.

Police presence in the capital of 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 that protesters would come from other cities.

About 1,000 protesters gathered near the obelisk honoring Minsk as a World War II “hero city,” where police harshly clashed with them. Protesters later tried to build barricades with trash containers.

Protests also broke out in the major cities of Brest, Gomel, Grodno and Vitebsk and police fired tear gas at the demonstrators in Brest, news reports said.

Ales Bilyatsky of the Viasna human rights group told Associated Press that he believed there were several hundred arrests.

Three journalists from the independent Russian TV station Dozhd were detained earlier after interviewing an opposition figure and were expected to be deported. An AP journalist was beaten by police and treated at a hospital.

“What has happened is awful,” Tsikhanouskaya told reporters Sunday.

Lukashenko was defiant as he voted earlier in the day.

“If you provoke, you will get the same answer,” he said. “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.”

Mindful of Belarus’ long history of violent crackdowns on dissent — protesters were beaten after the 2010 election and six rival candidates arrested, three of whom were imprisoned for years — Tikhanovskaya called for calm earlier on Sunday.

“I hope that everything will be peaceful and that the police will not use force,” she said after voting.

As polls opened, the country’s central elections commission said more than 40% of the electorate had cast ballots in early voting, a figure likely to heighten concerns about the potential for manipulation.

“For five nights nobody has guarded the ballot boxes, which gives the authorities a wide field for maneuverings,” Veronika Tsepkalo told Associated Press on Sunday, a few hours before leaving Belarus.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose assessments of elections are widely regarded as authoritative, was not invited to send observers

Tsikhanouskaya had crisscrossed the country, tapping into public frustration with Lukashenko and the country’s stagnating Soviet-style economy.

Belarus, a country of 9.5 million people, has reported more than 68,500 confirmed coronavirus cases and 580 deaths but critics have accused authorities of manipulating the figures to downplay the death toll.

Lukashenko has defended his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, saying that a lockdown would have doomed the nation’s already weak economy. Belarus has suffered a severe economic blow after its leading exports customer, Russia, went into a coronavirus pandemic-induced recession and other foreign markets shrank. Before the coronavirus, the country’s state-controlled economy already had been stalled for years, stoking public frustration.

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