Minsk: Clashes broke out between police and protesters in Belarus after a presidential election on Sunday that saw longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko face the biggest challenge to his rule in years.
An official exit poll showed Lukashenko, in power since 1994, scoring a landslide victory, but his main challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya immediately cast doubt on the results.
Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old political novice, galvanised the opposition and attracted tens of thousands of supporters to the ex-Soviet country’s biggest demonstrations in years.
Opposition supporters took to the streets of Minsk and other cities after polls closed and the state exit poll showed that Lukashenko had won with 79.7 per cent of the vote, with Tikhanovskaya in a distant second place with 6.8 per cent.
Several thousand protesters gathered near a central monument in the capital Minsk, where they faced off with hundreds of riot police with shields.
A live video feed provided by US-funded Radio Liberty showed police firing stun grenades and advancing to disperse the crowd, with many fleeing.
Opposition-linked media outlets including tut.by and Nasha Niva reported clashes with police and said a police van had rammed into a crowd of protesters.
There were also reports of water cannon and rubber bullets being fired.
The opposition had said it expected the vote to be rigged, and in a press conference after polls closed Tikhanovskaya said she did not trust results showing a victory for Lukashenko.
‘Majority is with us’
“I believe my eyes, and I see that the majority is with us,” she said. “We have already won, because we have overcome our fear, our apathy and our indifference.”
The first official results were expected overnight.
Lukashenko, seeking a sixth term, warned the opposition he is not planning to give up his “beloved” Belarus as security was dramatically tightened in the capital on Sunday.
Columns of military vehicles were seen on roads into Minsk, police carrying machine guns checked vehicles entering the city and government buildings were cordoned off.
Residents also reported internet shutdowns and widespread connection problems.
Tikhanovskaya, an English teacher by training and a stay-at-home mother, has emerged as the symbol of a new protest movement against Lukashenko’s rule.
She decided to run for president after the authorities jailed her husband, popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, and barred him from running.
At polling stations on Sunday, many wore white bracelets that have become an emblem of the opposition. Tikhanovskaya wore one on each wrist.
Casting his vote, Lukashenko vowed to maintain order, suggesting his opponents may be planning unrest.
“Nothing will get out of control, I guarantee you... whatever certain people have planned,” the strongman said.
Political observers predicted Lukashenko would rig the vote in the absence of international observers. He won over 83 per cent at previous polls in 2015.
Some voters in Minsk said 65-year-old Lukashenko’s time was up.
“I hope something will change,” said Vadim Svichkarev, a 49-year-old security guard. “It’s very hard to be stuck in the same position for 26 years.”
Tikhanovskaya said that if she won she would release political prisoners and call fresh elections to include the entire opposition.
Tikhanovskaya’s campaign office said Sunday that one of her key allies, Veronika Tsepkalo, had left for Russia out of concern for her safety.
Tsepkalo, whose ex-diplomat husband Valery Tsepkalo was barred from standing, and Maria Kolesnikova, campaign chief of ex-banker Viktor Babaryko who was also dropped from the polls and is in jail, joined forces with Tikhanovskaya to mount the campaign.
Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus, said there was no doubt the polls would be falsified.
“The question is what happens then,” said Gould-Davies, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
In the past Lukashenko has crushed protests with riot police and hefty jail terms, prompting Western sanctions.
“Given Lukashenko’s ruthlessness, anyone who is concerned about Belarus will worry, will fear for the Belarusian people in the days ahead.”
Lukashenko has sought to boost his support by warning of outside threats and raising the spectre of violent mobs.
Belarus has detained 33 Russians, describing them as mercenaries sent to destabilise the vote.
The detentions sparked a political crisis with ally Russia. Moscow urged the men’s release and President Vladimir Putin told Lukashenko he wants Belarus to stay “stable”.