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Belarus election: President Lukashenko faces toughest test in years

  • August 09, 2020

Voters in Minsk, Belarus (9 August)Image copyright

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Polls have opened in Belarus, although many votes were cast early

Voters are casting their ballots in Belarus with five-term President Alexander Lukashenko facing his toughest challenge in years from a political novice.

Mr Lukashenko is still expected to win, but he faces a prominent rival in Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, 37, who is running in place of her jailed husband.

His previous landslide victories were condemned by election observers.

Belarus has also seen large opposition protests and a row with Russia.

Sometimes referred to as Europe’s last dictator, President Lukashenko, 65, was first elected in 1994.

In the last vote in 2015, he was declared winner with 83.5% of the vote. There were no serious challengers and election observers reported problems in the counting and tabulation of votes.

There was a crackdown on activists and journalists in the lead-up to the election.

On Sunday, long queues were seen at some polling stations, including at Belarusian embassies abroad.

So will this vote be different?

Probably not. President Lukashenko is widely expected to win again. But the vote is being closely watched amid growing signs of frustration at his leadership.

The campaign has seen the rise of Ms Tikhanovskaya, a former teacher who became a stay-at-home mother until thrust into the political spotlight.

After her husband was arrested and blocked from registering for the vote, she stepped in to take his place.

In the lead-up to the election she told the BBC that people in Belarus did not believe the election would be run fairly.

“But I still believe that our president will understand that his time is over. People don’t want him anymore,” she said.

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Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has emerged as the wild card of the race

President Lukashenko has dismissed Ms Tikhanovskaya as a “poor little girl”, manipulated by foreign “puppet masters”.

Tens of thousands defied an escalating crackdown on the opposition last month to attend a protest in the capital Minsk, the largest such demonstration in a decade.

Since the start of the election campaign in May, more than 2,000 people have been detained, according to Human Rights Centre Viasna.

On the eve of the vote Ms Tikhanovskaya’s team said her campaign manager had been arrested and would not be released until Monday.

And on Sunday, as people voted, internet service was “significantly disrupted”, said online monitor NetBlocks. Opposition supporters say this makes it harder for evidence of election fraud to be collected and shared.

Is anyone else running?

There are three other candidates:

Two key opposition figures were barred from running and threw their weight behind Ms Tikhanovskaya’s campaign.

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Mr Lukashenko cast his ballot at a polling station in Minsk

What else is happening?

Last month Belarus arrested more than 30 Russian nationals and accused them of plotting violent protests with members of the opposition.

Russia denied the allegations, saying the 33 – claimed to be members of a shadowy mercenary group – were only travelling through Belarus en route to Turkey.

Despite the apparent rift some analysts say Russia would like to see President Lukashenko win but be weakened by the vote, to force him into closer ties.

Media captionAn unexpectedly lively election campaign has revived hope for change in Belarus

Three Russian opposition activists were detained on Saturday as they travelled to Belarus to observe the vote, the Open Russia group said.

Anger towards Mr Lukashenko’s government has been in part fuelled by the response to coronavirus.

The president has downplayed the outbreak, advising citizens to drink vodka and use saunas to fight the disease.

Belarus, which has a population of 9.5 million, has had nearly 70,000 confirmed cases and 600 deaths.

Media captionActivists and journalists were rounded up and jailed in Belarus ahead of the election

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