The head of Belarus’s election commission has declared that partial results show authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko far ahead in his bid for a sixth consecutive term.
The announcement by Lidia Yermoshina, before polling stations had closed, that Mr Lukashenko had racked up 82% support in voting at hospitals and sanatoria in five regions was likely to exacerbate tensions with opposition supporters upset about the country’s deteriorating economy, political repression and the president’s cavalier dismissal of the coronavirus threat.
The presidential election pitted Mr Lukashenko, who has held an iron grip on the ex-Soviet nation since 1994, against four others, and has generated the biggest opposition protests in years.
Opposition supporters suspect election officials will manipulate the results of Sunday’s vote to give the 65-year-old Mr Lukashenko a sixth term.
Anti-government protests were expected later on Sunday and Mr Lukashenko has made it clear he will not hesitate to put down any demonstrations.
Voter turnout was so high that some polling places in Minsk had to work past the planned closing time of 8pm local time to accommodate voters who were waiting in long lines, Ms Yermishina said.
Her announcement of the partial results, which showed main opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya with about 7% of the vote, did not specify what proportion of the electorate was represented.
Many democratic aspects of the presidential election appeared to be lacking on Sunday. Two early rivals to Mr Lukashenko were blocked from running in the race and one had to flee the country with his children after warnings that he would be arrested.
Tensions were high throughout the day as Mr Lukashenko vowed to quash any protests and at least eight opposition campaign staff were arrested. A top aide to Ms Tsikhanouskaya fled the country in the afternoon.
In the evening, police set up checkpoints on the outskirts of Minsk and were examining residence permits, apparently aiming to stem any influx of protesters from other cities.
Mr Lukashenko himself was defiant as he voted.
“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.”
Ms Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of a jailed opposition blogger, attracted highly visible support, a very unusual development in a country where opposition voices are generally suppressed. One of her rallies in the capital of Minsk was attended by an estimated 60,000 people.
Mindful of Belarus’s 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 – Ms Tsikhanouskaya called for calm on Sunday
“I hope that everything will be peaceful and that the police will not use force,” she said after voting.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya emerged as Mr Lukashenko’s main opponent after two other prominent opposition leaders were denied places on the ballot. One was jailed for charges that he calls political and the other, an entrepreneur and former ambassador to the United States Valery Tsepkalo, fled to Russia after warnings that he would be arrested and his children taken away.
Mr Tsepkalo’s wife Veronika became a top member of Ms Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign, but she, too, has now left the country, campaign spokeswoman Anna Krasulina said on Sunday.
Eight members of Ms Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign staff were arrested on Sunday and the campaign chief was arrested a day earlier.
Three journalists from Russia’s independent TV station Dozhd were detained after being forced to the ground by plainclothes police on Sunday afternoon. Maria Kolsenikova, a top associate of Ms Tsikhanouskaya who had been briefly detained on Saturday night, told the station the journalists were seized shortly after interviewing her.