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Belarus braces for protests as incumbent Lukashenko appears to win presidential election

Alexander Lukashenko has ruled the ex-Soviet country since 1994, making him Europe’s longest serving leader.

belarus-minsk-presidential-election Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko casts his ballot at a polling station in Minsk Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

LONGTIME BELARUSIAN LEADER Alexander Lukashenko appears to have won the presidential election with 79.7% of the vote, according to an exit poll.

Main opposition challenger Svetlana Tikhanovskaya came second with 6.8%, according to the same poll, but accusations of fraudulent voting have already been made, with over 100% turnout reported at some polling stations.

Leading opposition candidates were jailed ahead of today’s vote, including Tikhanovskaya’s husband, popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky.

The 37-year-old English teacher by training and stay-at-home mother mounted a surprise opposition campaign in her husband’s place and has drawn tens of thousands of supporters to campaign rallies. 

Many voters wore the opposition’s trademark white bracelets at polling stations today.

belarus-election Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya casts her ballot. Source: AP/PA Images

The exit poll results came after the Belarusian election commission announced voting would be extended at some polling stations where long queues had formed.

Tikhanovskaya had called on supporters to vote late supposedly to help prevent election fraud, and AFP reporters said long lines of voters had formed outside polling stations in the capital Minsk, just hours before voting was due to end.

Election officials had warned they could restrict access to polling stations and Central Election Commission chief Lidia Yermoshina described the queues as “real sabotage, an organised provocation”.

“This is what has led to the very long queues at polling stations,” she said in televised comments.

Security was tight in Belarus for the election, with police and checkpoints deployed across the city. 

The atmosphere in Minsk was tense, with police and special forces on the streets and many residents saying it was impossible to connect to the internet.

President Alexander Lukashenko, who is facing the biggest challenge to his authority in years, has alleged his opponents may be planning unrest.

Big queues had also formed at Belarusian embassies abroad, including in Moscow where hundreds were lined up outside the embassy only two hours before voting was due to end at 8pm local time (6pm here).

About Lukashenko

Lukashenko has ruled the ex-Soviet country of 9.5 million people with an iron grip since 1994, making him Europe’s longest serving leader.

belarus-election People queue to cast their votes in the Belarusian presidential election in Minsk. Source: Sergei Grits

Critics have mocked Lukashenko, claiming his approval ratings have hit single digits and nicknamed the 65-year-old authoritarian leader “Sasha 3 percent.”

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Tikhanovskaya’s husband dubbed him “the cockroach”, and his supporters waved slippers at protests to symbolise stamping out his rule.

In response, Lukashenko jailed his main rivals including Tikhanovsky and told opponents not to call him names.

“Insulting people is not allowed in any country in the world,” he said at a meeting with Belarusians in late June.

“Do you really believe that a sitting president can have a 3-percent rating?”

During an animated address to the nation this week, Lukashenko wiped sweat from his brow as he accused the opposition of planning mass riots in Minsk, and urged voters to renew his tenure to stave off an uprising.

“All kinds of arrows, poisoned and Covid-ridden, are targeted at Lukashenko in order to bring him down, humiliate him, stamp on him, and destroy him,” he told the packed auditorium of officials, church leaders and military personnel.

© – AFP 2020, with reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha

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