Eight staff members for the main challenger to the authoritarian leader of Belarus have reportedly been detained by police and one of the campaign’s leading figures has fled the country as it votes in a presidential election.
The election pits President Alexander Lukashenko, who has held an iron grip on the ex-Soviet nation since 1994, against four others in an atmosphere charged with wide public dismay over the country’s deteriorating economy, political repression and Mr Lukashenko’s dismissal of the coronavirus threat.
Opposition supporters suspect that election officials will manipulate results to give the 65-year-old Mr Lukashenko a sixth term in office. Protests are expected once the polls close on Sunday — and Mr Lukashenko has made it clear he will not hesitate to quash any demonstrations.
“If you provoke, you will get the same answer,” he said after casting his ballot. “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.”
Although there are four candidates other than Mr Lukashenko on the ballot, the opposition has coalesced around one: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of a jailed opposition blogger.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign has 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 has called for calm.
“I hope that everything will be peaceful and that the police will not use force,” she said on Sunday after voting.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya emerged as Mr Lukashenko’s main opponent after two other prominent opposition aspirants 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.
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 results’ legitimacy because of the potential for manipulation.
“For five nights nobody has guarded the ballot boxes, which gives the authorities a wide field for manoeuvrings,” Ms Tsepkalo told The Associated Press on Sunday, a few hours before leaving Belarus.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, whose assessments of elections are widely regarded as authoritative, was not invited to send observers to the vote.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya had crisscrossed the country, tapping into public frustration with Mr Lukashenko’s swaggering response to the pandemic 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.
Mr Lukashenko has dismissed the virus as “psychosis” and declined to order restrictions to block its spread. He announced last month that he had been infected but had no symptoms and recovered quickly, allegedly thanks to doing sports. He has defended his handling of the outbreak, saying that a lockdown would have doomed the nation’s weakened economy.
Belarus has sustained a severe economic blow after its leading exports customer, Russia, went into a pandemic-induced recession and other foreign markets shrank. Before coronavirus, the country’s state-controlled economy had already been stalled for years, stoking public frustration.